GEORGE KUHN reviews Luca Gaudagnino’s ‘A Bigger Splash’, a stylish but sedate thriller saved by Ralph Fiennes’ central performance.
A Bigger Splash is a pressure cooker of sexual tension, running on Ralph Fiennes’ electrifying performance. It is a remake by Italian director Luca Gaudagnino of Jacques Deray’s cult classic La Piscine. While the film comes close, it ultimately fails to maintain the exciting mess of human emotions and motives that initially make it interesting.
In A Bigger Splash superstar Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is recovering from throat surgery in Italy with her new partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), when her life is rocked by the appearance of an old flame, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter ‘Pen’ (Dakota Jonson). From the moment they meet, the eccentric Harry rubs Paul up the wrong way. Resentment and attraction build up between the four characters in equal measure, and the viewer’s pleasure is largely derived from trying to disentangle what each of them is ultimately after.
The film’s actual plot is rather shallow. It poses itself as an emotional thriller but the lack of story cripples the film’s narrative tension. The dialogue falls flat during the crucial moments, while not knowing the characters’ motives make it hard to create plot twists that feel genuinely surprising. This is the price paid for having characters that feel so human despite living seemingly extreme lives. However, the emotional turmoil of the characters is acted with such conviction and restraint (or lack thereof in the right places) that you feel as if you’re discovering what each character wants at the same time they are. It makes the film seem believable and realistic, though the piecemeal revelation of the pasts of each character makes it feel as if you’re watching fleeting memories rather than exposition.
The real and undeniable glue of the film is Fiennes captivating performance. Never has a totally unnecessary interlude of rock and roll dancing been so enjoyable as in A Bigger Splash. The energy and joie de vivre brought to the part contributes to the style of the film, going hand-in-hand with the quintessentially Italian style of directing: the obtrusive cuts as well as the quick zoom-ins that smash your attention into the faces of the characters.
The strange thing is the necessity of Fiennes’ Harry to the movie is absolutely emphasised in the final act. When he is absent from the film, A Bigger Splash falls flat, losing its style and feeling dreary and dull. The characters’ interactions feel more two-dimensional and the delightful mystery that was the magic of the movie – and saving grace of the otherwise forgettable plot – is lost. Without the chaotic influence of Harry, the only true free radical in the group, they slip back in to routine, forgetting the flirtation and the obscenity that made them interesting to watch.
But this is a theme that is apparent throughout the movie. Every relationship that Harry is not directly involved in is relegated to a sub-plot that feels like wasted screen time. Marianne and Paul’s relationship is unsteady, but in such a slow way; Paul’s flirtation with Pen feels superficial, driven by aesthetics rather than human chemistry. While these may both be directorial choices by Gaudagnino, it doesn’t change the fact that you end up wishing Ralph Fiennes would dance back into shot and blow the status quo delightfully apart.
This is not to say the rest of the acting is poor – it isn’t. It’s just that the amount of restraint in the parts makes them feel fainter, like shadows cast by Harry, and since his story has no real resolution within the film, you are left pulling together these dull and faded pieces, which just feels unsatisfactory. Ultimately A Bigger Splash suffers from having all of its excitement occur in the minutiae of the first half so that the momentous events of the final act feel deflated and weirdly hollow.
While the film is enjoyable to watch, it shows just how much damage bad pacing and a mismanaged chronology can do to a film that is otherwise full of style and genuinely engaging performances.
‘A Bigger Splash’ is on general release.