Passion abounds in ‘A Bigger Splash’, Luca Gaudagnino’s modern take on relationships and desire, yet somehow it’s hard to care, says Colum Finnegan.
Perfectly cast, Tilda Swinton is Marianne Lane, a famous rock star (ostensibly styled on glam-era Bowie, think jumpsuits and face paint) hiding out/recovering on the Italian island of Pantelleria. She has recently had vocal chord surgery and thus has to mime her way, convincingly, through the film. With her is partner, Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker who seems to have lost his creative mojo, but not his attraction to Marianne. Theirs is a blissful existence, lazing by the pool, bouts of passionate sex – a world juxtaposed with Marianne’s rock star life, where we see her step out into a massive stadium filled with roaring, adoring fans.
Their idyll is interrupted when ex-lover, record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) arrives unannounced with his young daughter, one Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson of 50 Shades of Grey ‘fame’). And so we have the set up – a four-way exercise in cross-generational desire and sexual tension.
Harry still loves Marianne, and Paul seems to be drawn to the 22 year-old Penelope, who seems to be attracted to just about every man on the island. And Marianne, well she doesn’t say much, but she seems to still have some interest in ebullient Harry.
A remake of 1969 French classic La Piscine, A Bigger Splash (somewhat pretentiously named after the Hockney painting) is a film that transports us to a life of privilege; these four people exist in a sun-drenched world of little responsibility, the kind that comes with great wealth. However it’s the relationship between the two men that’s the real story here.
Paul is visibly nonplussed by Harry’s arrival (which it must be said is the film’s best feature, Fiennes gives an uncharacteristically brilliant comedic performance as the fast talking record producer with substance abuse issues) and both men attempt, consciously or not, to out-macho one another, vying to be the alpha male and win the attention of the women. Things grow increasingly tense and strained as the film draws to its climax, which involves a bumbling Columboesque detective and some ham-fisted references to the ongoing refugee crisis.
It is hard to feel sympathy for the characters on display here. They all look and behave like they could be tumblr-loving hipsters and their inner lives are so shallow as to be mildly annoying. All four are at base essentially self-obsessed. Billed as an exploration of desire, it feels more like an exploration of spoilt brats, their poor self-control and easily bruised egos. By the film’s close you feel a slight sense of disgust at the world they inhabit and the fickleness of their supposed feelings. Possibly that was director Luca Gaudagnino’s aim, to expose these characters and dismantle their façades. Unfortunately it’s hard to care for such unlikable people and consequently the dramatic climax ends up feeling mildly boring.
That being said, Swinton and Fiennes both give great performances, a convincing double act as the woman who can’t talk and the man who can’t stop talking, making it almost worthwhile just to see them in action together. But performances aside, if A Bigger Splash is supposed to represent the brightest and best of Italian cinema, then it could do with swimming in the deep end.
‘A Bigger Splash’ opens in selected cinemas on February 12
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