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Cannonball

Strong performances elevate A Bigger Splash

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A Bigger Splash (this week's indie alternative to the latest X-Men juggernaut) has been billed as an "erotic thriller," but that's a slight exaggeration. The story's mostly made of quiet, subtle gestures between people with a lot of history, punctuated by a few meaningful thrills. The film's directed by Luca Guadagnino, whose 2009 I Am Love (unseen by me) has Tilda Swinton speaking fluent Italian and is lauded by many. His latest is a loose adaptation of the 1969 French film La Piscine, as well as the painting "A Bigger Splash" (1967) by British artist David Hockney. The painting depicts a '60s style vacation home devoid of people with a diving board in the forefront and a "splash" in the pool, the meanings of which are profound and limitless, I'm sure.

Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a world-renowned rock star now in the twilight of her career. She's had a surgery to repair her voice and so spends the whole film either silent or faintly whispering. Marianne and her partner, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), are on an extended vacation on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria, a place defined by rocky cliffs in the distance, tan men and easy living. Marianne and Paul are plainly in love and enjoying their isolation, but all that changes when a friend from the past named Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) shows up unannounced to stir the pot. He's brought along Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who it turns out is Harry's daughter from some 20 years past he never knew he had until a year ago. Now the two of them are awkwardly close and vacationing together in Rome.

Thus the stage is set for two couples with checkered pasts from different generations, quietly hashing out their differences over a long, life-changing weekend. This is Guadagnino's first English language film in some time, but in the characters' endless leisure, seemingly bottomless bank accounts and the easy way they savor food, sex and conversation, A Bigger Splash is hopelessly European.

At least “Unchained Melody” isn’t on the soundtrack.
  • At least “Unchained Melody” isn’t on the soundtrack.

I'm most interested in the dynamic between Paul and Harry. Both have dated Marianne and have a long-standing rivalry that's about more than a woman. Harry's an exuberant music producer who maybe talks when he should listen, whereas Paul is quiet, reserved, hopelessly sexy and either deep or boring; it's up for interpretation. Meanwhile, Penelope is young, but she might be the smartest person in the room.

The decision to have Marianne voiceless for most of the film is obviously deliberate and I think a vague allusion to a woman's agency or lack thereof, but I'm not sure how that theme fits into the overall story. There are a lot of heavy-handed metaphors at play here—a snake keeps trying to get into the pool, the hills are teeming with refugees—but not all of it fully gels. Moments of levity are pleasant enough but rarely translate to actual laughs.

Still, I'm recommending A Bigger Splash on the strength of its performances and the complexity of the characters. Swinton is fabulous as ever in a part that requires her to communicate with gestures alone, and Fiennes brings a much-needed energy to the otherwise languid pace. I was most taken in by Schoenaerts as the brooding filmmaker who thinks before acting, until he doesn't. Is it a brilliant performance, or do I just have a crush? Whatever. This is an "erotic thriller," after all, and pardon me, I'm not made of stone.

A Bigger Splash continues at the Roxy.

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