Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by Dave Kajganich
Here it is, up at the top: ***SPOILER ALERT*** So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Sometimes I feel that films like A Bigger Splash are the ones that disappoint the most on a fundamental level. Most movies that I well and truly hate are easily identifiable from trailers and advertising, though a few slip through the cracks and surprise me in their aggressive awfulness. Hack-maestros like–for instance–Michael Bay occasionally hit you right between the eyes with films that seem accidentally transcendent (Pain and Gain). But films like A Bigger Splash fall into a frustrating kind of cinema purgatory: a critical space wherein the whole of the experience is enjoyable, or even beautiful and invigorating, and yet the moments of failure frustrate deeply enough to sour the sweetest of seductions.
Seduction is the name of the game from the first moments of A Bigger Splash, as our beautiful leading couple lounge in various states of undress in a magnificent villa. Sunbathing, sex, solitude, and all the sunshine that can be captured in one exquisitely photographed frame–these are the touchstones for the world we’re about to be drawn into, and one that’s about to be disrupted by the arrival of Harry, an aging lothario who stumbles into Marianne and Paul’s getaway at just the wrong (right) time, with his smoldering, estranged daughter in tow. Sounds like a recipe for delectable fun, right?
And so it is. To back up, the story involves a cold war/love triangle of sorts between the coupled Paul and Marianne, and the latter’s former lover, Harry. On the surface, everything is alright and the tension is playful, but underneath it all, dark passions are beginning to cloud all of the sun-choked and carefree gallivanting. Paul and Marianne’s relationship formed from the ashes of Marianne’s breakup with Harry, and their love seems to have had a calming, centering effect on the both of them; Paul has given up drinking and drugging, and Marianne has begun to settle her own demons (that are alluded to but never explicitly mentioned). Harry, meanwhile, seems to have filled the void Marianne left with plenty of partying, reminiscing on glory days, and pining for his lost love.
It’s all a convincing and compelling tapestry, and one performed exquisitely by its players, particularly Ralph Fiennes as the brash, bawdy, and clearly insecure Harry, as well as a nearly-mute Tilda Swinton in the role of rock star Marianne. What the two had and what still remains is apparent, relatable, and at times heartbreaking as the two stars’ magnetic personalities collide in a dance that should be familiar to anybody who was ever wrapped up in a doomed relationship that burned everything else to the ground. The film has a lot to say about how we parse relationships in conjunction with our sense of self, and hard looks at what constitutes a love that truly blossoms versus one that destroys. There’s also plenty to be mined about the at-times toxic and malignant nature of patriarchal heteronormativity. Harry and Paul are (former?) friends who barely speak to Marianne when she’s present, and fight over her like teenage brothers vying for a shared car when she is absent.
Here’s the trouble: A Bigger Splash sets a stunning table, but never quite delivers the banquet that has set our mouths watering for the first 2/3rds of its too-long two-hour runtime. There is an issue of severe pacing, one that leaves the audience wondering if the relationship between Paul and Marianne really seems worthy of such a violent–and ultimatley fatal–outburst, and one that, most frustratingly, sees Harry’s estranged daughter, Penelope, wedged into a Lolita-esque role that never evolves into much more than window-dressing.
Still, the film could have slunk away without raising too much ire if it left us to ponder the fallout of the climax, but it bafflingly continues, heaping on a pile of half-formed ideas that are designed to enrich the narrative, but end up burning a hole right through it. There’s some eye-roll worthy, half-baked allegories about Syrian refugees that go absolutely nowhere, but even these pale in comparison to a series of reveals about Penelope (Dakota Johnson, hitting all the right notes in a somewhat workwomanlike fashion), and this is where A Bigger Splash goes (pardon me) off the deep end.
For a film that posits much about the importance of relationships, the past, and identity, Penelope is treated as little more than an afterthought when it comes time to weave her into the story in a way that actually ties up loose ends. Beyond serving as a reminder of how utterly transparent yet alluring the desperate and rudderless can be, Penelope seems to have no organic place in the story. Her pseudo-relationship with Harry is never unpacked, her assumed dalliance with Paul is kept ambiguous and only barely touched upon in the final few moments before Harry’s death, and (most bizarrely) we find out that she has been lying to both Paul and Marianne (and perhaps to Harry, though this is also never explored), but in a way that has no discernible impact on the characters or narrative.
Pile all that onto a final few minutes that seem ripped from the pages of an overdue creative writing project and you’re left with an ending that almost completely erodes all of the good will the film spent the first 100 minutes carefully building. A Bigger Splash might be the most tragic outing of the year thus far, only because it promises so much and delivers so little beyond mood and performance. The experience of watching is enjoyable, but by the final credits, discerning viewers may find themselves wondering if they were thrilled less by the development of the plot and more by the seemingly oh-so-lovely lives that our beautiful and exotic principles are unraveling for our pleasure.
Tonal visual poetry is certainly an artistic feat in and of itself, and A Bigger Splash deserves credit for building the exquisite moods that it does, and the lovely, at times lyrical way that the story unfolds in the winds of the Italian countryside. However, this is a film that insists upon the drama and import of a narrative that ultimately builds to little. In the end, we’re treated to a series of delightful overtures that never quite coalesce into the symphony we’ve been promised.
Final Grade: C+