What a strange, unnerving film A Bigger Splash is. It doesn’t entirely work–it moves in fits and starts, ranging from the languid to the frenetic, but in a summer of superheroes it’s refreshing to see a film designed for grown-ups, and with another great performance by Ralph Fiennes, who I am now convinced is the best actor working today.
A Bigger Splash was directed by Luca Guadagnino, and based on an earlier film, La Piscine. It is set on an Italian island, where a Bowie-esque rock star (Tilda Swinton) is recovering from vocal cord surgery. She is with her lover (Matthias Schoennaerts), and they are enjoying an idyll of sun, water, and sex. But then an old lover of hers (Fiennes) tells her he’s flying in, and the plane literally is overhead.
Fiennes was Swinton’s producer as well as lover, and he has a surprise–a daughter he never knew about (Dakota Johnson). Thus we have a classic chamber piece, though the setting is mostly outdoors–four people, each pairing off and creating drama. Fiennes wants Swinton back, while Johnson has her eye on Schoennaerts, though Swinton is worried that Fiennes, who has no limits, might have fucked his own daughter.
The film has some pacing problems and telegraphs some plot points–the title and a reference to Brian Jones will clue you in on the climax of the film, in which tragedy strikes–but is elevated by the lead performances. Swinton, an extremely versatile actress, has an interesting chore. Except for flashbacks, she can’t speak above a whisper. But her facial expressions are so clear, like an actress from silent film, that she doesn’t need to speak.
As much as Swinton doesn’t speak, Fiennes does. His character, Harry, is irrepressible, one of those guys who is always “on,” and is a good time until he wears you out. Fiennes has been so good lately. His last three roles of note, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hail, Caesar! and this film are so different and interesting that I would love to see him do anything (I did see him play Hamlet years ago). When he receives an honorary award of some kind they must be sure to play the clip of him here dancing to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” It’s a career highlight.
Schoennaerts, though playing a subdued character, is solid, but after seeing Fifty Shades of Grey I’m not sure if Johnson can act. Her character is an enigma, basically showing off her body and looking at everyone seductively. She’s so vapid that it’s hard to tell if it’s acting or not. Time will tell with her.
This may sound strange but I also appreciated the nudity in this film. It is not gratuitous–people on vacation do get naked, and the film doesn’t treat it like a big deal. We’ve gotten so prissy about things, with women wearing bras while having sex and both sexes wrapping themselves in sheets when they get out of bed that it’s nice to see people behaving like they really do.