A Bigger Splash

March 23, 2016
Tilda Swinton in 'A Bigger Splash' (2015)
Tilda Swinton in 'A Bigger Splash' (2015)

Ten years ago Ralph Fiennes was the model of a stiff-upper-lip character actor, the epitome of English reserve. There was, however, another persona biding its time until it could be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. This Fiennes has given us a brutal warrior in Coriolanus, a sparkling portrait of Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman, and memorable comic turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Hail Caesar!

In Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, we get Fiennes’s most unbuttoned performance yet, as Harry Hawkes, an aging record producer and uncompromising party animal.

It’s a helluva role, and Fiennes gives it everything.

Although Harry is but one corner of a complex ménage à quartre, he habitually uses up all the oxygen in the room. He dominates by sheer force of personality and a desire to have a good time that becomes a torture for others.

This is foreshadowed in the opening scenes when we meet rock star, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), and her younger lover, Paul de Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary maker. They have retired to the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria – a stark, barren landscape lashed by winds – where they lie in the sun, swim, and make love. Marianne is recovering from a throat operation which means she can talk only in hoarse whispers. The taciturn Paul is getting over both alcoholism and a suicide attempt.

As Marianne and Paul embrace on the beach the shadow of a plane passes over their mud-caked bodies. Soon a phone rings and Harry’s voice comes bubbling through the speaker. He’s arriving at the airport. Can they come and meet him?

This is an unexpected displeasure. Harry is a former lover of Marianne’s and mentor of Paul’s, who more-or-less passed her on to the younger man. They both feel attached to him, although they know this is the end of their island romance.

When Harry comes bursting through customs he has a companion – Penny (Dakota Johnson), whom he introduces as his daughter. The fruit of an old liaison in America, Penny has only recently entered Harry’s life. She says she’s 22, but there’s more than a hint of Lolita in her make-up. She is the too-worldly, oversexed, teenage nymphet destined to cause trouble.

And so begins a dangerous game in which Harry rekindles his old passion for Marianne, and Penny makes eyes at Paul. At the same time, Harry shows a barely-disguised sexual interest in his daughter, which may well be reciprocated. The seeds of intrigue, jealousy and disaster are sown.

As Harry’s extrovert personality drives Paul back into himself, their conversations take on an aggressive edge. Although he knows Paul is on the wagon, Harry fills the fridge with booze and gets drunk on a daily basis. He invites two old friends, Mirielle and Slivie (Aurore Clément and Lily McMenamy) to come and stay. He is forever yelling loudly and plunging naked into the swimming pool.

Filled with nostalgia for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, Harry recounts stories of mixing tracks for the Rolling Stones, and does his best Mick Jagger impersonation, dancing and miming to Emotional Rescue. Penny spends much of her time with a book, sizing up the company and looking bored.

Soon Harry is telling Marianne that Paul is only good for “hibernating” with, but while he is trying to seduce her in the village, Penny is making her move on Paul. With sexual tensions escalating, something has to give, but the climax and denouement keep us guessing to the end.

A Bigger Splash is a remake of Jacques Deray’s stylish drama of 1969, The Swimming Pool, in which Romy Schneider and Alain Delon were the lovers who had escaped to a villa in St. Tropez. The intrusive Harry and his daughter were played by Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin. At this point, resemblances begin to fall away. Fiennes’s Harry is a thousand times larger and louder than Ronet’s version, while Johnson’s Penny is more devious than Birkin’s naive teen.

Deray’s film was considered steamy in its day but A Bigger Splash is more overtly sexualised. All the lead characters are naked at some stage, with Harry being especially uninhibited. By making Marianne into a rock star who has lost her voice, Guadagnino allows for a series of flashbacks that flesh out the relationship she once had with Harry. Her voice is her fortune, but without it she is powerless to resist his verbal onslaughts.

Marianne’s muteness is a test that Swinton passes brilliantly, communicating mainly through gestures and facial expressions. Schoenaerts, not for the first time, plays the strong, sullen type; while Johnson is given a role with a greater sexual charge than anything she managed in the cartoonish Fifty Shades of Grey.

Guadagnino sets the action on an island on which scores of North African refugees are arriving daily. These figures are infiltrated into the plot in such a way that we pull back from the lead characters, seeing their problems as a small matter alongside the life-changing disasters that afflict the Africans.

This is only one strand of a movie filled with finely chiselled symbols and references. There are the whip snakes that Paul and Marianne are perpetually ejecting from their paradise. There is the nod towards David Hockney’s California dreaming in the film’s title. There is a soundtrack that incorporates everything from the Rolling Stones to Captain Beefheart, to Harry Nilsson’s Jump into the Fire. As with Guadagnino’s previous effort, I Am Love, which also starred Tilda Swinton, this movie has echoes of Antonioni’s classic features of the 60s.

Harry represents an unashamed nostalgia for those days of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that seem to be gone forever. On the barren island of Pantelleria a new order has arrived, or perhaps a new maturity. Yet the noisy past, to quote the Rolling Stones, will not fade away.

A Bigger Splash
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by David Kajganich, after a story by Alain Page
Starring Tilda Swinton, Mattias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Aurore Clément, Lily McMenamy, Elena Bucci, Corrado Guzzanti
Italy/France, rated MA 15+, 124 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26th March, 2016.