Director: Luca Guadagnino
15 | 2h 4min | Crime, Drama, Mystery | 12 February 2016 (UK)
Ralph Fiennes continues his recent run of cracking performances with another loopy, intense turn in director Luca Guadagnino’s (director of I am Love) sexy, darkly funny A Bigger Splash, which is a remake of La Piscine, Jacques Deray’s psychosexual drama from 1969. Fiennes’s turn is actually just the icing on the cake of this well-acted, edgy, and interestingly ambiguous film that manages to dance quite well between black comedy and tense dramatics, the result of a four-way conflict of jealousy and desire. Aside from Fiennes, the director has on hand a cast of undeniably beautiful actors, with whom his camera unashamedly engages in a love affair, and all the oddball melodrama is set amidst the lush, sun-drenched landscapes of the remote Italian island of Pantelleria. In short, the perfect backdrop for some steamy sex, cuckolding, and lust.
It is the arrival of Fiennes character – the brash, overbearing music producer Harry – on the island of Pantelleria that kicks off the drama, as his presence disrupts the planned escape of Marianne (Tilda Swinton, who also starred in I am Love), an ageing rock star with a distinctly Bowie-esque aesthetic, who has fled the public eye for an extended holiday in a clifftop villa on the island. She is recovering from some major throat surgery that has put her career on ice, and watching over her with concern is her younger, and very buff filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Mattias Schoenaerts), who is an old friend of Harry. Their peace is disrupted not just because Harry is an irritating (to Paul, at least) motormouth, who has also brought his precocious and very sexy daughter Penny (Dakota Johnson) along, but because he happens to be Marianne’s ex. As several flashbacks and scenes of reminiscing make clear, theirs was an intense, passionate and substance-enhanced affair carried out during the prime years of Marianne’s global fame. There are hints that both have never been able to hit quite the same high since then.
Naturally, viewers will expect right away to see sexual tension, unresolved passions, and betrayal to emerge from this four-person dynamic, given the previous involvement of the two oldest characters and the shameless flirtations of the youngest. The questions are obvious: Does Harry still yearn for Marianne? Is the coy Penny going to make moves on Paul when Marianne’s back is turned? Will Paul’s insecurities (aside from his issues with having ‘been given’ Marianne by Harry – as Harry puts it – we learn of a earlier suicide attempt) get the better of him? But the path to the inevitable fireworks is more a zig zag rather than a straight line, the character dynamics well served by the acting. Swinton and Fiennes are superb as the former rock couple, bringing that essential sense of years of arguing, laughing and fucking hanging around their every word and gesture. They make it believable that they were an item, which is quite a challenge given how unbearable Fiennes’s character initially comes off as and how hard it is initially to either feel any sympathy for him or believe Marianne would take up with such a clown.
Unanswered questions emerge as to the extent to which the relationship was soured by drink and drugs, and whether, as Harry does eventually accuse her, Marianne’s relationship with Paul is a result of a decision to play it safe, having come out the other end so battered. Fiennes steals much of the film; when he is not throwing some crazy shapes around the villa to the sounds of the Rolling stones, he is jumping stark naked into the pool or belting out an 80s classic on karaoke (one of the film’s many highlights). But spare some credit for Swinton too for giving such a layered, highly physical performance, with barely any recourse to dialogue.