A Bigger Splash
This remake (of 1969 film La Piscine) didn’t quite work for me, mostly due to a third act narrative lurch that feels disproportionate and (relatively) unmotivated. Combined with a cryptic quality that tends to the annoying rather than intriguing, A Bigger Splash lends itself to a bigger let-down than I had expected.
Mainly because, prior to that point, it had me fully engaged, rather than frustrated. The tensions between the isolated quartet on the idyllic Italian island of Pantelleria simmer nicely, as Harry (Ralph Fiennes), ex- of recuperating rock royalty Marianne (Tilda Swinton), gate-crashes her and toy boy Paul’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) the love nest. In tow is petulant daughter Penelope (Dakota Johhson), whose relationship with her recently discovered daddy is fairly unconventional.
But then, everything about the relationships here is fairly unconventional. Harry is revealed to have introduced Paul to Marianne, encouraging their relationship, but he now wishes to rekindle their flame, dismissing her dalliance with Paul as boring and lacking that one true spark. Penelope flagrantly flaunts herself towards the disinterested, uptight Paul, and the jealousies nursed by Harry towards studly Paul suggest the unspoken undercurrent of something more.
The dynamic during the first ninety minutes is intriguing in both what it does and doesn’t say. That said, the use of flashbacks to illustrate the history between Harry, Paul and Marianne is all but redundant (there’s little one would regard as essential there, and some lousy back projection in the stadium scenes to boot), and mischief-maker Penelope is used in such a wilfully perverse manner that she seems like a cynically-imposed plot motor rather than any sort of character in her own right. But Swinton and Fiennes bring such life to their characters that it’s impossible not to become engrossed.
Swinton, despite suggesting the very luvvie-ish conceit of giving her character struggling post-throat surgery (oohhhh, the thematic resonance!) is as indelible as an aging (not that you’d really notice) diva as she is in everything she does, while Fiennes, in a wholly gregarious, obnoxious, exhausting, but entirely self-aware (so much so, he breaks the fourth wall at one point) performance as a provocative rock producer keen on abandon in every sense (including some hilariously woeful dancing), but also very sharp, seizes a gift of a role – not typical of the kind of thing he’s offered – and bear hugs it.
Less successful is Schoenaerts, who too frequently passes from brooding into stolid and unpersuasive. The film needed a performance suggesting something more combustible lurking within, particularly to set to the stage for the final act, and the result is that we never quite believe it when the confrontation with Harry occurs and the latter ends up at the bottom of the pool. Prior to this, Harry’s advances have been decisively spurned by Marianne, while Paul has succumbed to Penelope’s coquettish come-ons, leading to a superb dinner table scene, post-coital conundrums, in which Paul becomes the most animated he has in the movie, and the penny drops for all concerned.
But the picture hasn’t earned itself a murder plotline. It doesn’t have that kind of canvas. Indeed, it feels like a cheat on the good character drama previously unfurled. Added to which, some hugely clodding elements are imposed that fail to mesh; the police chief sweeping the investigation under the rug because he’s a big fan; the ungainly attempt to make this topical by referencing the refugee crisis as a plot resolver; and the “reveal” that Penelope speaks fluent Italian and was seventeen all along (I thought I was missing something; the more interesting reveal, which I wouldn’t dismiss even now, although Harry’s comments seemed to suggest otherwise, is that there’s no connection between “father” and “daughter”, and she was merely brought along to help facilitate his stealing back Marianne).
What does the elimination of Harry add to the picture consequently and thematically? Perhaps La Piscine made this scenario succeed more effectively. We are left with pregnant presentations of the remaining characters, Penelope’s veneer slipping (Johnson can play older no problem, but no one is buying her as seventeen) and the relationship between Marianne and Paul appears affirmed, showing their relief at having got away with it, whatever it was, as there’s no sense the Harry-sized hole in their lives has any real consequence. Which may reflect the characters on one level, but it doesn’t reflect the first three-quarters of A Bigger Splash.