Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: A Bigger Splash

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash" has a terrific cast and is gorgeous to look at, but I'm not convinced that it knows which of its myriad of stories going on is the central one. At times, the film is a drama about a celebrity and her recovery and then, at others, it's a relationship drama between two different pairs of people. Then, it's a tense drama about the uncomfortableness caused when someone from one of the characters' pasts shows up and wreaks havoc. Finally - and least convincingly - it's a not-quite-thriller and not-exactly-police-procedural, but somewhere in between.

Despite my not being completely taken with the picture, "A Bigger Splash" offers much to recommend. Similar to Guadagnino's "I Am Love," it's visually stunning, whether we're staring over the mountains that surround the central villa where it is set or watching a vehicle travel down a winding path with the sun setting.

The cast is a particularly strong one. Tilda Swinton never speaks in more than a whisper as Marianne Lane, a rock star who has undergone a vocal operation and is not supposed to talk. She's spending some time alone with her younger lover, a documentary filmmaker named Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, at their villa, but two guests show up - a good-time-Charlie record producer named Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who was once in business and love with Marianne, and his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who clearly wants to stir the pot and make everyone at the villa uncomfortable.

The film's first half is fairly successful, creating a sense of the relationships past and present between these people, although Penelope remains a bit of a mystery. Fiennes, whose character plays the agent provocateur, is especially memorable as Harry, who is unafraid to make a fool of himself dancing drunkenly in front of others to the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue," singing karaoke to a bar full of people eyeing Marianne, who can't sing due to her recent surgery, and promenading around the villa completely naked.

Tensions begin to rise between the couples following an afternoon during which Marianne and Harry spend time together and Paul takes Penelope on a hike to a deserted beach. This then leads to a kerfuffle between two characters, which ends up coloring the entire final third of the film. I can't say too much without giving important plot details away, so I'll just mention that the direction in which the film goes didn't particularly work for me. The picture suddenly becomes about something much more dramatic but, to me, less compelling once the genre cliches kick in.

Guadagnino's films capture a certain aura - stylish Italian films of the 1960s and 1970s - as well as milieus - namely, well-to-do European circles - and "A Bigger Splash" is best when it's mining that material. When it unexpectedly veers off into almost-thriller territory, it began to lose me. The cast is very good and the film is nothing if not scenic, but Guadagnino's movie - which, I should mention, is based to an extent on the 1969 film "La Piscine" - feels like a picture in which there are two competing stories and it so happens that the less compelling one finally wins out.

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