There is certainly nothing subtle in this latest offering from Italian director Luca Guadgnino. Set on a picturesque Mediterranean island, A Bigger Splash is a steamy, sun-scorched thriller populated by a collection of narcissistic, insecure characters who are seemingly oblivious to just how good they’ve got it. The action takes place in a villa tucked away in the hills of Pantelleria, a secluded retreat for globally famous rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker. Marianne is recovering from throat surgery that renders her speechless and Paul is also a wounded soul – the details of which slowly emerge – but they seem blissfully happy in each other’s company, lolling naked on the rocks and fucking in the pool. However, their idyll is soon disrupted with the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a flamboyant, boorish, hyperactive record producer who also happens to be Marianne’s former flame. With is daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow, Harry unleashes himself on the loved-up couple in more ways than one.
Fiennes is magnificent in this role, his willingness to embrace the snide, self-absorbed Harry in all his obnoxious glory is a site to behold. Harry is an outlandish, portentous piece of work, a very unlikeable character with an ego that knows no bounds, but Fiennes somehow makes him a horribly magnetic creature. He is the kind of person you would hate to spend time with, but there is dark delight in watching others endure him. Harry is a man living in the past, churning out the same anecdotes that he’s been dining out on for years. A moment at the beginning of the film only becomes apparent as a metaphor when we see Harry trying to slither his way back into Marianne’s affections. There is potential for Marianne – and her condition – to come across as gimmicky but casting an actor as skilled as Swinton ensures that the character feels real (as much as possible in the rarefied world she inhabits). Johnson, on the other hand, is insipid as Penelope with no life in her character or her performance. She takes dull to extremes and her efforts at allure and seduction are so laughable that her presence only serves to undermine the efforts of her co-stars.
Whilst the film is nostalgic at times (vinyl records, flashbacks to Marianne at the peak of her success), on more than one occasion Guadagnino uses the setting to touch on contemporary issues, such as the European migrant crisis. At one point, Penelope and Paul stumble across some new arrivals whilst hiking and we also glimpse the detention facility that sits adjacent to the police station in the local township. These touches ground the film very much in the present and also serve to emphasise the privilege that our protagonists enjoy. The biggest fault with the film lies in the fact that it continues beyond the most logical end point. When tragedy strikes, Guadagnino takes far too long to wrap things up and, as a result, the story lags, energy dissipates and new characters are introduced who are merely caricatures. In fact, there are several minor characters – such as two women Harry brings back to the house – whose presence is of little consequence and add nothing by way of narrative exposition.
For most of its running time, A Bigger Splash is an engaging, entertaining study of a dysfunctional personality and those swept up in the full force of his self-absorbed bombast. When the growing tension finally reaches its climax, it is a little bit underwhelming and leads to a final half hour or so that plays out like an episode of any television police procedural, except that we already know who did what to whom. With good performances from Swinton, Fiennes and Schoenaerts, A Bigger Splash suffers primarily from a lack of ruthlessness in the editing room. Some scenes run too long and others could have been excised in their entirety without any significant impact on our understanding of the characters, their relationships with each other and/or the events that unfold in the course of the narrative.