Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” dances to the beat of the same drum exploited by Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” (1992), or even, if you consider to it be De Palma lite as much as I do, “Wild Things” (1998).
An erotic thriller unabashed in its love of skin flashing, sexual tension, beautiful people, stunning locales, and, of course, murder, it is a sensual slow burn of sexual politics gone wrong, of clashing egos pushed to their respective breaking points. Delectably tense and effortlessly entertaining — with much of its success having to do with its throwback celebration of hedonism — “A Bigger Splash” is one of the best movies of 2016.
More or less taking much inspiration from Alain Delon/Romy Schneider mashup “La Piscine,” a gorgeous but off-puttingly languid psychological chiller, the film is set during a long, hot summer on a remote Italian island, wherein rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is laying low with her lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), following potentially career destroying throat surgery. With each passing day dedicated to the indulgences of lovemaking and sunbathing, relaxed silence permeating the atmosphere as a result of Marianne’s vocal recovery, the end game is tranquil retrospection to be savored. In a life of draining world tours and inescapable media attention, pivotal is the luxuriating in much needed time off.
But the situation is complicated by the spontaneous arrival of Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), a former lover and confidant, and his tantalizing twenty-two-year-old daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). A flibbertigibbet who manages to center every waking moment around his own exaggerated interests, Harry’s visiting is something akin to a plane crash landing on a highway, with Marianne finding it hard not to get caught up in the things she loved about Harry during their six years together and with Paul poised to perhaps violently defend the connection that rests between him and his lady love.
Until its final act does “A Bigger Splash” slink about as a sizzling psychosexual drama, beguiled by its own desires and hyperaware of the facial and bodily movements of its characters. Watching carefully in preparation for fictional individuals to give into their temptations is not always such an enthralling cinematic endeavor in the grand scheme of film as an overarching whole, but these actors, so captivating, paired with Guadagnino’s drippingly carnal direction and David Kajganich’s perspicuous and darkly funny screenplay, paint “A Bigger Splash” as a bewitching comedy of manners that grows better the darker it becomes.
So it’s fated that its cathartic last act only heightens the brilliance already set forth by Guadagnino and company — in those thirty minutes are all emotions laid bare, motivations clearer and frustrations discernibly expressed. In that respect does “A Bigger Splash” become even more of a remarkable achievement; to tightly wind up sexual tension is already so much of a strenuous task, but to unspool it to the satisfaction of an audience is arguably even harder, and Kajganich delivers.
The film marks the second collaboration between Guadagnino and Swinton, the first being the critically beloved “I Am Love” (2009), unseen by me. Harboring the kind of invisible but very much there admiration that oftentimes rests between an auteur and his muse, there’s a buzzing, understated energy that lingers above the movie’s every action, in no doubt an effect of the relationship between Swinton and her director.
Swinton’s Marianne says little in the film’s crisp 123 minutes — any sort of conversation is relegated to vaguely audible whispers or a failed attempt at a scold — but she is, regardless, the most fascinating character to call “A Bigger Splash” home. In Marianne do we find a woman tortured by nearly every facet of her roller coaster of a life, rendered increasingly interesting due to her inability to speak, her inability to linguistically try to make sense of her surroundings. So much of our viewing experience is spent striving to piece together the inner-workings of her psyche, striving to bring words to her obstructed mouth. Swinton’s faultless performance rides high on that enigma: our obsession with Marianne is rooted in this missing component of her portrayal.
Swinton’s grounded characterization is what gives “A Bigger Splash” immediacy, and her co-stars, undertaking such fickle roles, become all the more intriguing in response to her downplayed performance. As Harry, Fiennes turns in a masterful portrayal. A smorgasbord of expertly performed physical comedy and flamboyant expression, he goes for broad without ever being too overtly broad; one false move and he’d be a throwaway character from a screwball comedy. But Fiennes cohesively assures us that the cyclone that is Mr. Harry Hawkes is a man of blood and flesh and not of fictional vulgarity, and we come to love him for the social bravery that overwhelms his personality.
Schoenaerts does what he does best — play an ultra-masculine beaut of a gent who becomes more rugged than Clint Eastwood the less he considers his emotion turmoil.
It’s Johnson, daughter of Don and Melanie Griffith and star of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” that is the real revelation of “A Bigger Splash.” Through the former feature were most audiences introduced to the bombshell, but in the wake of panning from critics (and the general public) has she had little opportunity to prove herself as a force to be reckoned with. In this film, she is exactly the latter. A sinuous symbol of sex with flavors of Lolita here and peak Sharon Stone there, her Penelope is a luscious schemer impossible to take your eyes off of. Everything about Johnson in “A Bigger Splash” suggests future superstardom — she’s an Angelina Jolie, a Charlize Theron, in the making.
Destined to become a favorite for audiences looking for the modern equivalent of a sexy, French mod piece of the 1960s or an alternative to the erotic thriller genre perfected in the 1990s, “A Bigger Splash” is a sensational dazzler beautiful to behold and electrifying to experience. Its final scene leaves something to be desired — the film’s so deliberate in its every move that a solidified conclusion only makes sense tonally — but presented is a spotlessly designed character study integral in the defining of 2016 as a wondrous year in cinema.