Release Date: February 12th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama; Mystery
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson
Ever sat through a film that looked splendid, had winning actors winningly performing, bore intrigue and yet that made you want to claw your eyes out? A Bigger Splash announced itself in such a way to me, although to be fair its teeth-grating annoyance did eventually improve to a state of plain old manageable annoyance. The negative overlay has to do with a severe disconnect between viewer and three wholly unlikeable characters: filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) isn’t all that aggravating — probably because he looks eternally fed up with his predicament — though the same cannot be said for rocker Marianne (Tilda Swinton), music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and student Penelope (Dakota Johnson).
Marianne and Paul’s quiet, idyllic Italian break built around sun, sex and relaxation gets interrupted suddenly by the screech of phone call and the whoosh of aeroplane (it’s a metaphor). On the other end of the line is Harry, Marianne’s pal and former lover, who is calling to let her know his plane is about to land at the nearby airport. He has brought his daughter with him, for some reason. More significantly, Harry brings raving obsession, with Marianne first and foremost, but also with rambling — for two hours, the guy is physically unable to hold his tongue. He seems fittingly well-versed in the island’s community, at one point hilariously showing up at a resident’s house just to try their risotto.
It isn’t initially clear how the four know each other thus interactions are racked with awkwardness, though that doesn’t stop Harry mouthing on about how he once served the Rolling Stones. These introductions are inelegant also because Marianne cannot speak — she is a rock star and rock stars have to go on voice rest, though she does eventually wispily chatter when the film realises silent sex isn’t enough for somebody of Swinton’s calibre. She does at least get to don full Bowie-esque getup in flashbacks. Marianne’s beau, Paul, suffers from headaches brought on by medication brought on by a serious life event brought on by his ailing career, or something. Crucially, the headaches are not an issue at the start (remember Marianne can’t talk), only flaring up upon Harry’s arrival (remember Harry can’t shut up).
The latter’s daughter, Penelope, is moody, scheming, and unpredictable (and then entirely predictable). An age issue suggests miscasting; Johnson, otherwise, doesn’t have much to do apart from laze around. The four characters spend most of their time lazing around in truth, often naked — the camera lingers but does so exclusively — as they wind each other up about their respective troubles and life philosophies. You can see what the screenplay is going for, that feeling of rising tension and impending drama, but the underlying menace reaches boiling point after 30 minutes and only starts to subside thereafter.
What begins as an odd pseudo-romantic endeavour becomes something else entirely, a would-be thriller if the film was at all thrilling. Its musical inclination — the suggestion is that Marianne and Harry were once big partners in sound and debauchery — beckons A Bigger Splash towards a more drugged-fuelled narrative, perhaps something akin to Kill Your Friends. In fact, that comparison pits Fiennes in the wrong film: his self-serving, self-destructive nature is far more suited to the Owen Harris flick. He does commit to the role admirably, delivering a performance buoyed by genuinely creepy eccentricity, but the horridness of Harry means Fiennes is constantly fighting a losing battle for sympathy.
Despite all that, there is a small hint of intrigue going on in Luca Guadagnino’s retreat escapade. Without giving anything away, you do find yourself awaiting a genre shift towards a more mysterious tone, and when said shift does inevitably arrive it feels right in a story sense. But it’s also very abrupt and too late in the game, therefore the movie concludes before character reactions reach full formation and story arcs can be suitably sewn up. I’m not against open-endedness (quite the opposite; as a fan of Lost, unanswered questions are right up my street) but the film’s overlong buildup renders the eventual pay-off a tad undercooked.
Potentially rewarding themes attempt to break through the superficial limelight, nods towards a clash of cultures and the obliqueness of fame for instance, but none of these make a true mark. In the end, it is all a bit celebrity Mad Dogs without the desired amount of madness or dogged captivation. There is nothing to chew on and nobody to root for. The only splash here, unfortunately, is one into shallow water.
Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight