Even after the passion has burnt out and the relationship has crumbled, the romances of the past have a way of sticking with us. Sometimes it’s just a whiff of nostalgia, a memory of that one nice moment before the spark of love would be lost forever. Other times it could be a song or another piece of pop culture that brings to mind the ugly fights that caused everything to collapse. Good, bad, and ugly, we carry the memories of past loves with us. That affliction of remembering past affections can even plague the rich and famous, as is the case with the rock star at the heart of A Bigger Splash, the new film from director Luca Guadagnino. A remake of the 1969 French film La Piscine, A Bigger Splash features gorgeous scenery and the overbearing shadows of a romance that has faded.
Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is one of the world’s biggest rock stars, playing her Bowie-esque music to sold out arenas. Having recently had some throat issues, Marianne and her beau Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are spending some quiet time in a small Italian village. Paul sees to Marianne’s day-to-day schedule, but mainly the two are spending a romantic getaway together as Marianne’s voice heals. Things get very complicated when Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his newly discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) arrive unexpectedly. In the past, Harry was Marianne’s producer, and the two had a lengthy relationship before Marianne was introduced to Paul by Harry. The gregarious Harry plays in stark contrast to the subdued Marianne and Paul, with the latter not exactly thrilled at the presence of the unexpected company. Unaware of the years of history between the trio, Penelope remains a distant enigma, one that plays fast and loose with the truth. Even in the beautiful, sunny surroundings of this quaint Italian village, the past hangs over this quartet like a storm cloud on the horizon.
Even in a mostly mute role, Tilda Swinton is radiant as ever in the role of Marianne. When we first see her, she’s taking the stage at an expansive arena. Her clothes and makeup bring to mind David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase – an inspired choice as each Bowie and Swinton seem as if they’re from another planet. Most surprising in A Bigger Splash is the performance given by Ralph Fiennes. He’s playing a fast-talking, kind of sleazy producer, also providing the film with much of its comedic content. It’s such a departure from what we’ve come to expect form Fiennes, who even in comedies carries his characters with certain type of class and dignity, all of which aren’t clearly visible here. Fiennes’ Harry is the kind of egotistical character that would pull out an inferior Rolling Stones record like Voodoo Lounge, put it on the turntable without anyone requesting it only to brag about his involvement in this particular forgettable chapter in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll. That questionable taste in Stones records even extends to a rather amusing scene where Fiennes rocks out to “Emotional Rescue,” another underwhelming entry in the late-period Stones canon.
Supporting the two excellent leads are Dakota Johnson and Matthias Schoenaerts. Johnson, who was the finest thing in last year’s otherwise dreadful Fifty Shades of Grey, gives a strong performance as the ambiguous daughter of Harry. She’s got an alluring presence on the screen, and the manner with which the actress withholds information lends her characters an extra layer of mystery wrapped in an unsettling sensuality. Conversely, Schoenaerts isn’t as mysterious. His character of Paul is given what is at first an ambiguous past, though he slowly sheds his layers of self-protection and opens up about the demons of his past. Between the four stellar leads, A Bigger Splash shows the sheer power that excellent casting can do.
For the first two thirds of A Bigger Splash, the film feels like it’s playing out as an understated drama, one with sharp comedic elements. However, towards the film’s conclusion a shocking event occurs that changes the trajectory of the story. Whereas most films would have this event come sooner and thus become the entire dramatic crux, this stunning event is more of a coda to the twisted relationships that we’ve been watching for much of the film. It may seem underwhelming in the moment, but its thematic qualities and consistent embrace of ambiguity make for an engaging watch, even if I was one of those underwhelmed by this sudden turn. In many regards, I think A Bigger Splash would make an interesting double feature with last year’s By the Sea – both are kind of throwback art films featuring beautiful scenery in Italian villages that are well-acted and interesting only to buckle under the weight of their wobbly third acts (I still like both, mind you).
A pretty good drama with rock ‘n’ roll in its heart, A Bigger Splash may not make the biggest splash at the American box office. After all, this is a somewhat cerebral examination of the lasting impact of relationships and how we can carry them with us for years after their conclusion. As Captain America: Civil War hits the multiplexes, A Bigger Splash is a smart piece of counterprogramming for those looking for something to appeal their hearts and brains instead of just bombarding the eyes with extravagant spectacle. Between Grand Budapest Hotel and Hail, Caesar!, I’ve yet to see a bad movie that features both Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. After A Bigger Splash, I still haven’t.