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.