Surface Pleasures: A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash-Fiennes, Dakota Johnson

A Bigger Splash
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Opens May 4

You don’t just need, per Jean-Luc Godard, a gun and a girl for a movie. Beautiful people in a beautiful location suffices. Certainly it works to the advantage of Luca (I Am Love) Guadagnino’s semi-remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 thriller La Piscine. Instead of St.-Tropez, the action takes place on the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria. And in place of Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin, Guadagnino has assembled the no-less sensuous likes of Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson, though their sun-dappled attractiveness is quickly proven to be skin-deep.

Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a Bowie-like rock god—though we only ever get fleeting glimpses, via none-too-convincing flashbacks, of her onstage antics—who is recuperating on Pantelleria with her lover Paul (Schoenaerts) after a trachea operation. (Marianne is mute for much of the film, the better for Guadagnino to trade on Swinton’s statuesque ethereality.) The pair is soon joined by Marianne’s producing partner/former significant other Harry Hawkes (Fiennes), who arrives unexpectedly with his Lolita of a daughter Penelope (Johnson) in tow.

Drama of varying sorts (much of it sexual) ensues among the group, though the movie tilts heavily toward Fiennes, who’s never been as limber and loose as he is here. It’s clear Harry’s best days are behind him, and that he’s making up for the indignities of age by expending as much manic energy as possible. In the best scene he does a captivatingly desperate dance to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” and with every flailing gesture Fiennes fully captures that sense of someone trying to counteract their own mortality.

Death casts a pall over the film, in much the same way that the snakes that frequently appear in Marianne and Paul’s garden seem like slithery blots on the paradisiacal surroundings. It’s no surprise A Bigger Splash eventually takes a murderous turn, though it comes freighted with a half-baked bit of class commentary involving the island’s migrant population, who feature in several scenes as ignoble and/or sinister background extras. Guadagnino treats them with the kind of condescension common to well-intentioned artists with points to make about the haves and the have-nots. He’d have done better to focus solely on his viciously privileged quartet; they hardly require any extra help damning and devouring each other.

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