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Review: A Bigger Splash (2016)

A Bigger Splash (2016)

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Premise: A rock star (Tilda Swinton) vacations with her husband (Matthias Schoenaerts) on an Italian villa after undergoing vocal cord surgery. Their getaway is crashed by the musician’s producer and former lover (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson).

What Works: The perils of a rock and roll lifestyle are nothing new to cinema. A lot of show business pictures, from Valley of the Dolls to The Doors to Ray, have dramatized the excess of celebrity and the impact that it has on people’s lives but few movies have done it quite like A Bigger Splash. This movie features characters late in their careers; Tilda Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a David Bowie and Patti Smith-like rock star who has lived through fame, chemical dependency, and multiple relationships and has achieved a stable life with her husband Paul, played by Matthias Schoenaerts. Swinton and Schoenaerts make a convincing couple and the power dynamic of their relationship is clear in the way they relate to each other. The two have a passionate but steady relationship; his reliability and steadfastness offset her inclination toward chaos. But in Swinton’s performance as Marianne we can see a longing for the liveness and unpredictability of her earlier career. This becomes apparent when the couple’s retreat is interrupted by the arrival of Marianne’s old friend and former producer and lover Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes, and his daughter Penelope, played by Dakota Johnson. Fiennes is a runaway train and his performance in A Bigger Splash is unlike any other character he has played. As Harry, Fiennes is off the wall and he and his daughter embody the Dionysian qualities of rock and roll. This is where the conflict of A Bigger Splash becomes most interesting and the film separates itself from other rock and roll movies. A lot of Hollywood show business stories swing between decadent appeals and puritanical condemnation. The sinfulness of the rock and roll lifestyle is typically dangled in front of the audience and then the pleasure is punished by sequences of overdoses and rehab clinics. A Bigger Splash is different. It finds the joy in the decadence but it also shows how that sort of fun eventually becomes monotonous, obnoxious, and even ugly. That’s the struggle of this film; Harry has swept in to break up a happy marriage and the couple tries to resist that temptation.

What Doesn’t: Although it is sufficiently cinematic, A Bigger Splash tends to have the feel of a stage play. This quality is most apparent in the dialogue which has a literary sound. The dialogue is articulate and occasionally exaggerated or ostentatious in the way that stage performance requires. As a result, A Bigger Splash sometimes has an artificially dramatic feel that is at odds with the naturalistic style of the rest of the movie. The cast of A Bigger Splash are all good but Dakota Johnson doesn’t quite fit with her role. Penelope has a Lolita-like appeal. She’s placed in the film as a figure of taboo sexual temptation; the way the filmmakers photograph her recalls the imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladmir Nabokov’s novel. Part of her taboo allure is her youth. The generational difference between Penelope and the rest of the core cast makes her an outsider and the wild card of the group. Dakota Johnson is a little too old and worldly wise for the part and it might have been stronger and more provocative with an actress who had a younger look. The final conflict of A Bigger Splash is strangely anticlimactic. The movie is heading towards a physical confrontation but when it finally happens the story resolves its primary conflict in a way that seems a little too easy and convenient. The climax is at odds with the passive aggressive nature of the rest of the movie.  

DVD extras: Featurettes, image gallery, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: A Bigger Splash is uneven but at its best the film dramatizes the tension between the fun of the rock and roll lifestyle and the sobriety required for a long term commitment. The film has strong performances all around but especially from Ralph Fiennes.

Episode: #624 (December 4, 2016)