Taking its title from the 1967 David Hockney painting, and directed by Luca Guadagnino, A Bigger Splash is a remake of the 1969 psychological thriller La Piscine (The Swimming Pool). The action has moved from the South of France and relocated to Pantelleria – an Italian island just off the coast of Sicily.
A deeply-stylish film, A Bigger Splash makes quick work of exposing the splitting seams beneath the couture finish. New temptations and old connections interweave until something has to give.
Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a global superstar; a rock legend in the mould of David Bowie. We witness Marianne having flashbacks throughout the film; Lane’s hedonistic, high-octane life looks fun from the outside, but it soon becomes clear why she has stepped out of the limelight. Having undergone throat surgery to save her voice, Marianne is (literally) wordless for large parts of the film, allowing Swinton to emote like a pro – and Guadagnino’s camera can’t get enough.
Her peaceful, Italian idyll with her lover Paul (played with real subtlety by Matthias Schoenaerts) is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of her ex-lover; record-producer and bon-vivant extraordinaire, Harry (Ralph Fiennes).
The twist is that this three-way becomes a foursome when Harry introduces Marianne and Paul to his estranged daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). The result of a previous fling, their relationship constantly teeters over the edge of traditional father-daughter bonding. Is Penelope really his daughter? We are left to wonder.
It’s when the group of four come together that this film sparks to life. The casting is nothing short of perfect, and in a film like this, chemistry is everything. In A Bigger Splash, the formula is just right. The film crackles with heat; unexplored and undeclared.
What we have from Guadagnino is a classic set-up. The delicate balancing act between Marianne and Paul stems from them both being in recovery, mutually sheltering from the world. Harry is furious to see how well Marianne has adjusted to a life without fame– and Harry’s rage is sublimated into a relentless, chattering bonhomie. In Paul, Penelope sees a kindred spirit – someone on the cusp of life, not quite fulfilled and yearning for more.
The four splinter off into odd couples; Marianne and Harry rehash their past, while Paul and Penelope find themselves thrown together. The film practically slinks across the screen – languorous and sun-soaked – but it is the sexual tension that speeds the narrative towards its inevitable climax.
I won’t reveal anything further of the plot, but it is not so much how the film ends, but where it chooses to stop rolling, is what makes A Bigger Splash really interesting. The denouement has been exhausted; but the camera keeps going. The film’s coda –with its strange, Ruth Rendell-style malignity – sours the tone, but the acidity leaves an aftertaste that lingers. It’s a fascinating choice by Guadagnino, and one that makes me eager to see what he’ll do next.
While the tension unnerves us, it never distracts from a quartet of great performances. They’ve not worked together until recently, but Swinton and Fiennes are frankly delicious as exes Marianne and Harry. Dakota Johnson steps out from the 50 Shades franchise to give us a nuanced, enigmatic turn as Penelope. As recovering addict Paul, Matthias Schoenaerts may have the less showy role, but he underplays beautifully, the minor note to Harry’s brash, thumping key in C Major.
But if the film belongs to anyone – it has to be Ralph Fiennes. When it comes to Fiennes, I refuse to be calm and measured. His commitment to this role is phenomenal; the decision to tap into Ralph’s comic timing is Guadagnino’s masterstroke. It lifts the film to a whole new level.
Alpha-Male Harry should be deeply irritating. But it’s Fiennes’ exuberance and utterly joyous dad-dancing that makes him so endearing. Ralph’s talent for comedy is finally being realised; after a triumphant performance in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and a fabulous supporting role in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar. The film critic Robbie Collin suggests we are experiencing a Fiennes renaissance – and it’s certainly about time. In A Bigger Splash, Fiennes owns the screen – his performance is wolf-whistling, foot-stampingly good. If you’ve only ever associated Ralph with his dramatic roles – do yourself a favour and see him in this film.
Remakes are notorious in their hit rate; but A Bigger Splash is well-starred. This is a film heavy with metaphor. Weighty silences, glancing looks- for a film with characters struggling to communicate, A Bigger Splash certainly has a lot to say. The fragility and strength of relationships; why some last, why others fail. The answer doesn’t come easily to the surface, says Guadagnino. But pour yourself a Peroni, apply the sunscreen and dive right in.