After a year of cycling through international festivals, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s English-language “A Bigger Splash” has made its way to American theaters.
As a dialogue-laden, lengthy slow-burner, “A Bigger Splash” relies heavily on quietly mounted suspense and intense character study. Set against a beautiful but barren landscape, the emotional film highlights the mysterious and complicated problems of the wealthy elite in a sun-soaked environment.
“A Bigger Splash” finds famous musician Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) on a leisurely sojourn on the Italian island of Pantelleria. In an opulent villa buried in the lush countryside, Marianne recuperates from major vocal surgery with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a quiet documentary filmmaker. On the island, she and Paul grind their busy lives to a dead stop, trading the hectic limelight for the relaxing pleasures of swimming and sex.
Their low-key getaway is interrupted when Marianne’s old flame, and Paul’s old friend, Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), an eclectic and narcissistic record producer, shows up unannounced with his young and amorous daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). From his boisterous arrival to his incessant need to keep the attention on himself, writer David Kajganich makes Harry’s motive for return clear: to get back with Marianne.
Guadagnino captures the striking countryside — perfect for hedonistic pleasure, but lurking with ever-encroaching dangers. Snakes slither towards distracted, napping sunbathers, and harsh winds whip the sand into torrential rainstorms. The island’s natural beauty coexists with its danger, making it the perfect setting for such a tense and vibrant drama.
Along with their clothes, the artists vacationing in this erotic thriller completely let down their guards, allowing the viewers insight into their convoluted psyches. Marianne loves Paul’s reserved presence, but she can’t help but yearn for the more exuberant memories dug up by Harry, who drags Paul into a macho psychological battle to win back her affection.
As the film advances, Paul’s alcoholism and troubled past begins to unravel, and Marianne can’t help but observe Harry’s casually over-affectionate relationship with Penelope. Though a lot of the backstories are easily decipherable, the script is light. Marianne, recovering from vocal surgery, is physically unable to do more than whisper, and Harry’s self-absorbed monologues dominate many conversations.
Even with just four characters inhabiting the villa, the well of tangled relations never dries — there’s no shortage of impassioned drama. Buried deep in the patchy Italian countryside, the villa may be a privilege only the characters know, but their problems are flagrantly universal.
Their worst tendencies, from alcoholism to jealousy, transcend class and wealth. With nothing for the upper-class characters to do but let their issues simmer under the beating sun, they steadily bubble up to the surface.
Much of the film’s dialogue is in English, and the characters’ Italian fluency varies. Each person has have just as much difficulty communicating in Italian as they do with one another. Like children, they immaturely refuse to fully express themselves, enabling their discomfort to build without resolution.
The dialogue-driven film gradually picks up steam as the characters begin to reveal their ids. Empathizing with any of them, however, is a challenge. None of the characters are depicted favorably — in fact, they’re all portrayed as broken and troubled. Their overall absence of redeeming qualities combined with their proclivity for indulging in their ugliest ones, makes empathizing with any of the characters next to impossible.
Desire is the motivator for all of the characters’ actions, whether it’s jealousy or hedonism. Everyone seduces everyone, from Harry and Paul constantly cornering Marianne — speaking softly and boldly — in a never-ending struggle of cavalier machismo, to Paul taking Penelope to a secluded beach after days of her obvious advances.
And their desire slowly builds — “A Bigger Splash” progresses as lazily as the characters’ vacation. Free from any real responsibility, the characters can and do ignore the growing animosity and apprehension between them. Eventually, the tension begins to loom heavily, as it waits for viewers to catch up.
The film’s deliberate pace assures that each moment allows enough time for anticipation. But the suspense escalates so gradually, through small quips and telling glances, that by the end of the film the viewer is almost comfortable with it.
Though it could have benefited from heavier editing, “A Bigger Splash” captures the raw, intimate feelings of desire and shows that the struggles of a world-class elite are no less universal, or less sinister, than our own.