Title: A Bigger Splash
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Major Players: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes
Out Of Five: 3
The gala film for the London Film Festival’s Love strand this year wasn’t exactly romantic and, in all honesty, a bit short on actual love. With its overheated landscape and equally overheated quartet of characters, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is more of a lust story.
Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are holidaying on an island off the Sicilian coast. She’s a rock star, recovering from an operation on her vocal chords and concerned she may never sing again. Then her former producer and one-time lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), arrives unannounced, accompanied by his young daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), and stirs up a hornet’s nest of emotions – lust, jealousy, anger and guilt.
The title refers to the David Hockney painting of the same name, depicting a swimming pool in the bright California sunshine. It captures a splash and, although there’s no diver to be seen, the fact that it’s below the diving board points to somebody being under the water. The pool is the focal point of Marianne and Paul’s opulent holiday villa and a real favourite of Harry’s, who dives naked into the cool water at just about every opportunity.
It’s a portrait of a privileged lifestyle. Marianne’s clothes are obviously designer and even though Paul’s T-shirt is riddled with holes, it’s clearly expensive as well. The villa is beautiful, its setting idyllic, perfect for the peace and quiet the couple crave. And it’s all shattered by Harry’s arrival: he’s incredibly noisy, hyper and with so much bonhomie as to be incredibly irritating. As is his detailed knowledge of all the best places to eat and buy artisan food off the beaten track. It’s embarrassing for Marianne and Paul, who have been on the island for weeks and discovered none of them. And although Harry respects the locals by speaking Italian, his attitude towards them is more than a little patronising, treating them as if they were children, providing special treats for him, the grown up, to enjoy.
With the recent, and glorious, exception of The Grand Budapest Hotel, we’re so used to see an intense and brooding Fiennes on the screen that this role comes as something of a surprise and he carries it off with huge panache and relish. Swinton has a different set of challenges. While Harry hardly ever stops talking, she’s not supposed to speak at all, although she does manage the odd hoarse sentence. She’s almost totally reliant on her facial expressions and gestures to make herself understood and you wonder if her voice will ever return.
Even on her island hideaway, she can never escape her fame. When the four arrive at an isolated restaurant, it’s full but one man is happy to give up his table. We’re re-introduced to him later as the local policeman, the investigating officer when one of the quartet dies in the swimming pool: Marianne’s fame has a huge bearing on how he deals with the case and the conclusion he reaches. Or put simply, there’s one law for the rich and another for the poor. Given the territory, I kept expecting Inspector Montalbano to show up and sort things out, especially as the policeman was from the Caribinieri.
Essentially the film is an examination of the tangled relationships between the four people and it succeeds up to a point. But there’s an almost tangible distance between them and the audience, as if we’re not allowed to get too close, and that gives the film a sense of superficiality and artifice.
A look at the photograph above reinforces that distant feeling and tells you quite a lot about what to expect from the film. They all have things to hide, so it’s no wonder that three of them look wary of the camera. As for the fourth – Harry, of course – he’s hiding more than anybody underneath that grin and beard.
A Bigger Splash was screened at the LFF on 9 and 12 October, and is also reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 15 October. It’s released around the UK on 16 March 2016.