A Bigger Splash effectively does what so many offbeat indie dramas fail to do: it shows us the story rather than tell us. Very little expository dialogue lets us into the lives of these characters and their complicated histories with one another, histories woven into a tapestry of heartbreak, addiction, and regret. We don’t need to know more than what director Luca Guadagnino decides to show us in brief flashbacks, the words unspoken carrying significantly more weight than the words we hear. It’s masterful filmmaking, tremendous acting, and a breezy respite from the summer blockbuster season.
Tilda Swinton is Marianne Lane, an aging rockstar who we see still has the ability to fill football stadiums on her tours. She and her boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, the terrific villain from The Drop), are hiding away on the island of Pantelleria, sunbathing nude and making love in the pool. Both are in a state of recovery; Marianne’s is physical as she recovers from throat surgery, rendering her unable to speak above a whisper, and often times not at all. The limitation of the Marianne character plays like a strength in the hands of Swinton, who uses her body language and that quiver in her thin lips to convey more meaning than most words can do.
Paul’s recovery, however, is an emotional recovery, one we learn about periodically once the bull arrives in this china shop.
That bull is Marianne’s record producer and (more importantly) former lover, Harry, a dangerously impulsive man without personal boundaries or the ability to be anything other than purely antagonistic. Ralph Fiennes is electric in the role, almost never able to sit still in any room or any conversation. The lightning fast story he tells about producing one of the songs on The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge is especially captivating. It’s hard to imagine Harry ever being on coke, he must have been unbearable.
Arriving alongside Harry is Penelope (Dakota Johnson), his long-lost daughter. At least that’s Harry’s story. Everyone is skeptical, and very little effort is made to assuage their doubts about the ties between the two. Johnson has, to this point, been a rather wooden and distant actress in her limited roles. That sort of detachment works well in certain settings, and A Bigger Splash is one of those settings. As complicated as the lives of Marianne, Paul, and Harry seem to be, it’s Penelope’s enigmatic presence starring up emotions and igniting some dangerous desires. Penelope spends a great deal of time at a distance from the trio, watching behind her sunglasses beside the pool and barely masking what seems to be an air of disdain.
No matter how much Harry wants to party and raise hell, even bringing a pair of curious Italian women into the mix at one point, Marianne and Paul keep him at arm’s length. But they do it in such remarkably different ways and for different reasons. We are privy to these reasons over time, though with very little direct explanation. The memories of a former life and time between these three are fragmented and brief, like real memories tend to be. In the present day, it’s a sideways glance, a brief reference, body language, subtle qualities in each and every central performance saddling these characters with almost overwhelming emotional baggage.
The costume design also tells a distinct story here. Each character has their look, and the texture and setup of their clothing goes miles to tell us what we need to know about them. It’s Harry’s unbuttoned shirts and swim trunks, wildly patterned, or it’s the denim, muted hue of Paul’s wardrobe. And it’s especially the matronly attire of Marianne who, as Penelope coldly observes, seems “pretty domesticated for a rock star.” This, the preciseness of the rock and roll soundtrack, and the cinematography – capturing the bleached stone facade of Pantelleria – build a complete picture without bothering to tell us everything we need to know.
A Bigger Splash may not be sensational enough for some viewers who will go into the film expected high drama. This is a film charged with sexual energy from top to bottom, and the danger lies within the sordid lives these characters have had with one another. There is a shocking tragedy which kicks off the third act, but otherwise the story hums along on the backs of four monumental performances. Most notably Ralph Fiennes, who delivers time and time again. This time is no different.