Reviews

'A Bigger Splash': Decadent Fools in Danger

Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and Matthias Schoenaerts make for a dangerous trio in this talky love triangle from the director of 'I Am Love'.


A Bigger Splash

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Year: 2015
Trailer

Now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone, moviegoers don’t often have the opportunity to see a performer skip into a film and proceed with scorching force of personality to take it over completely. Think The Talented Mr. Ripley or Charlie Wilson’s War.

Ralph Fiennes takes A Bigger Splash hostage in much the same way, taking over from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Matthias Schoenaerts and even filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. All appear perfectly happy to play along. It’s a game that works beautifully until Fiennes’ motor starts to sputter, and the film's fragile dramatic structure becomes all too apparent.

A somewhat familiar tale of decadent fools getting up to no good in sunny climes, A Bigger Splash plonks vacationing rock star Marianne (Swinton) and her boyfriend Paul (Schoenaerts) on the rocky island of Pantelleria, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. They seem happy enough to lounge about naked at their hillside villa, reading, swimming, sunning, mating, and generally forgetting about the outside world.

Their idyll is comically interrupted when Marianne’s ex-boyfriend and onetime manager Harry (Fiennes) jets unannounced onto the island with his college-age daughter Penny (Dakota Johnson). Harry then turns his friends' lazy, hazy recuperation into just another iteration of the traveling carnival of his life.

It’s difficult to resist the pull of the film’s wildly fun first half. Harry is a yammering agitator of a music producer eager to grab any karaoke mic or leap fully clothed into every pool. He’s a jet-set vagabond with an anvil and sickle tattoo and a line of gab for every occasion. His gulp-it-all-down personality carries everybody on screen along. No matter if they’re supposed to be resting their voice like Marianne, who except for a few flashbacks is only ever heard whispering, or just trying to survive the onslaught like Paul, eventually everybody succumbs.

At first, Harry’s excess also buoys the film when it threatens to drag. A long drift of a scene in which people hang about the villa is punched up by his deliriously much-too-much impersonation of Mick Jagger, grooving and strutting out onto the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean as “Emotional Rescue” plays. The same drive towards overkill keeps Harry from seeing that even though a bar full of eager listeners is riveted by his karaoke performance, his romantically charged “Unforgettable” duet with Penny turns a few heads in the wrong way,

Although Marianne and Paul remain mostly in Harry’s shade -- foreshadowed when they are literally shadowed by his plane thundering overhead -- they also offer a counterpoint. A diffident filmmaker, Paul combines a certain passivity with a competent paternalism (he's responsible for keeping Marianne on her medications). His annoyance at Harry’s takeover of their quiet vacation is mostly unstated but palpable, a backbeat to the drone of Harry’s perpetual monologue.

Marianne’s reaction is more that of the fragile artist, easily led in one direction or the other. Under Harry’s guidance she was a coke-snorting Bowie-like rock goddess. Now in Paul’s arms, she is quieter and more stable. At least, until Harry rockets back into her life.

Awkwardly jabbed into the proceedings at inopportune moments, Penny takes the sensuality that Guadagnino has baked into the film and sharpens it to an inelegant point. Johnson plays her as bored, aloof, and malicious, throwing insults Marianne’s way every chance she gets. She's a device -- along with jarring close-ups of peeled fruit and gutted fish, and the occasional glimpse of a North African migrant -- the film uses to scrape furrows of unease into this pretty Mediterranean idyll.

Near the end of A Biger Splash, the police get involved and Guadagnino can’t decide if he’s directing a farce or morality tale. Until then, the movie delivers a lush, narcotic charge not unlike that of his last feature, I Am Love. But like party swirling around just one individual, it loses focus once Harry’s mood takes a turn. About then, viewers may well start checking their watches and thinking it’s time to be heading home.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.