A Bigger Splash (2016) by Luca Guardagnino
Review by Zach Dennis
Not every issue is on the surface. Sometimes some lie dormant below — waiting for their chance to fizzle to the top and explode into a mighty storm. This metaphor could be the best way to describe the personality of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a robust and all-consuming persona that is unaware of the demeanor of those around him.
“Harry doesn’t know limits,” Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) remarks at one point after Harry’s arrival along with his “daughter,” Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Marianne is Harry’s ex-lover and a David Bowie-esque musician who is hiding away in Italy as she tries to recover from vocal surgery. She is with her husband, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), who knows the problems that can arise with a visit from this man. It wasn’t planned, instead coming from an abrupt call from the plane warning them of their impending guests.
Director Luca Guardagnino’s A Bigger Splash is less about the raging issues on the surface, but rather the distant clouds that are not here yet. It is about pushing people to their limits and what our true nature says about us when we finally fall over the edge.
For the first two acts of A Bigger Splash, I was in love. The film plays as this boisterous, gluttonous thinly-plotted story of four people re-connecting under the Italian sun as tensions and passions arise and temptations began to creep in. Wine was drank, food was eaten, music was heard knocking off the walls of the villa — and the personalities were as large as each of these vices.
No personality was as large as Harry’s. Fiennes plays the role with this disinterest in comfort — prancing around the screen with half-buttoned shirts and flinging his arms up with such ecstasy that it is difficult not to fall into the vacation fantasy with him. It isn’t hard to understand why his presence makes Paul uncomfortable. While Marianne knows his track record, there is such an energy to his personality that you would have to be inhuman to not be dragged in.
In one scene, Harry bursts into the room and begins rummaging through the vinyl records next to the player. Tossing aside each selection, he holds up a recording of the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge and rushes outside to the pool where Penelope sits — motioning her to come inside to hear what “daddy made.” In the movie, Harry is a fictional manager for bands, including the Stones, but most importantly, he helped to create the icon that is Marianne Lane.
As “Love is Strong” begins to play, Harry tosses his arms in the air and begins to dance. Along the way, he tells the story of how he helped convince the band to use a unique instrument as their lead-in for the song — a trash can. The room lights up at the merriment of his tale and he leaps into a dance that more resembles a celebration in ancient Greece over the victory in war rather than a man past his prime jigging to his past hits.
For these two acts, A Bigger Splash is a wild ride that couples the luxury and beauty of the Italian countryside with the bombastic personalities of its inhabitants. But as the storm clouds roll in, and the third act twist occurs, it becomes some Hitchcockian thriller that loses its footing and the energy that drove us to it.
As we enter this final part, I found myself nostalgic for the previous hour and a half. Not because the movie ends on a poor note, but rather this twist doesn’t seem to be in the vein of the rest of the film. I would spend another two hours with the group of the first two acts, but Guardagnino turns away and the palette of the film becomes grey and stormy rather than its red and yellow European exploration that we began with.
It never seemed worth taking that dark of a turn (without spoiling what happens) and it seems like the issues that were bubbling from the first scene with Harry and the others could’ve been resolved in a much different way. The set-up of characters with sinister undercurrents seems more in-line with a Lifetime drama rather than a stripped down character study in the Italian countryside.
A Bigger Splash is fun for the first two acts, but as the storm comes and the limits are pushed over the edge, we are left with a conclusion that feels more finite and unearned rather than something truly realized. In the end, maybe it needed to reach its limits rather than go over the edge.