Where I Am Love had its sensuality contrasted by an air of pretense, of a class of society that wasn’t meant to engage in such trifles and affairs, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash engages in an effortless casualness instead. Every beat of the film feels natural, even when it bounces through tonal shifts at the snap of a finger, baring all its strange emotions to the audience.
Loosely using Jacques Deray’s La piscine as a jumping off point, A Bigger Splash drops the viewer on the gorgeous, remote Italian island of Pantelleria, where a rock star recovering from vocal surgery (Tilda Swinton) and her filmmaker boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) are vacationing. Along with the audience comes an old producer friend of theirs (Ralph Fiennes) and his young daughter (Dakota Johnson) whose presence is the catalyst for this idyllic vacation to erupt into a mélange of sexual tension and unresolved frustration.
While relatively constrained to the island house, Guadagnino allows his characters to roam through a place as beautiful as the four individuals who presently inhabit it. With the abundance of narratives being told about well-off individuals in a foreign land without ever addressing the culture, it’s curious how he weaves some of the sociopolitical issues of Italy into a film that focuses on four individuals who aren’t Italian. Such inclusions may seem derivative of the often-hearty sensual drama unfolding at first, but their purpose in the grand darkly-comedic scheme of things becomes clearer as things unfold.
And the film’s pacing and knack for immediately lightening itself up the moment things grow too grim is astounding. These fast and loose shifts tie directly into the way characters are presented, notably in the character played by Fiennes, whose embrace of manic comedy over the last decade continues to stun. Where the rest of the cast level their wonderful performances on a plateau of quietude, only occasionally allowing themselves an outburst—with Swinton’s whispers as Marianne being just as impacting as the plain-voiced dialogue of the supporting players—Fiennes is always drawing the attention to himself and attempting to drag others down with him.
David Kajganich’s script insists on giving Fiennes’ Harry more dialogue than any human being should ever speak in a short period of time and enhances his boisterousness by having him dive into pools naked, dance and sing along the house grounds, and drag Marianne into singing an Italo-disco song at karaoke. It must be said that Guadagnino’s use of pre-existing music is constantly impressive; just as he ensured pieces from John Adams’ piano concertos would be inextricably linked to I Am Love for many viewers, he’s appropriated tunes from the Rolling Stones and other rock artists for laughs while using Giacinto Scelsi pieces to great effect for suspense.
So much of A Bigger Splash is reliant on the importance of the gaze, both male and female in this case, though Guadagnino leans to embracing the male gaze with his framing of Johnson’s body. In lieu of emotional vulnerability, these characters dwell in physical nudity, each one scantily clad or entirely nude at least once in the film. Yorick Le Saux, whose intoxicating work here recalls the same mysterious sensuality he gave François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, constantly removes the audience from being a passive viewer by placing them directly in the eyes of the characters. For all the quick cuts for emphasis that Guadagnino indulges in, some of the film’s best moments come in rare, but intense, long takes that allow the audience to take in the moments, sometimes to uncomfortable effect.
There are similarities abound in the way Guadagnino presents both I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, but they couldn’t be more different in scope and narrative fluidity. Where Love is direct in what it hopes to tell, Splash chooses to meander and imply rather than make any overt statements about its intent. Guadagnino occasionally lets his deceptive snake of a film slither away when it attempts to offer unnecessary context—flashbacks being its worst enemy—but just as the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” will linger in your mind long after the credits roll, begging for another listen, A Bigger Splash will prove impossible to just toss aside without another viewing.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino; written by David Kajganich; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts & Dakota Johnson; 124 minutes.
A Bigger Splash is currently experiencing a limited release.