A Bigger Splash (2015)

*. You know you’re getting old when . . . you find yourself shaking your head at the strange mating behaviour of a group of characters who are getting horny at a vacation villa on an Italian island, and then realize that the leads are both only in their late fifties.
*. There’s a point I’m getting at with this. A Bigger Splash is ostensibly an “adult” film, which means that (1) it’s not based on a comic book or video game, and (2) it’s a drama about people in “relationships” (sorry for the quotation marks, but you know what I mean).
*. But A Bigger Splash really isn’t that kind of an adult movie. This is because the quartet of holidayers have no connection to reality. They are headed by Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock star of a previous generation who is now enjoying a celebrity afterlife. The others are Marianne’s boy toy Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), an ex-lover named Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and Harry’s daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

*. Celebrities, and by extension their entourages, don’t live in our world. As A Bigger Splash illustrates they live without responsibilities or consequences. If the restaurant is full and they don’t have a reservation there is no problem, a table is immediately vacated for them. If it isn’t a big enough umbrella, somebody else is getting wet. If there’s a concert in town it doesn’t matter because the whole town will show up instead to see them perform (shitty) karaoke. And if they accidentally kill someone . . . well, you get the picture.
*. Aside from the celebrity angle this remake of the French film La Piscine (1969) does curiously little to modernize the original. It’s a timeless tale of jealous passions. So timeless that as soon as things get started (literally foreshadowed by an ominous shadow passing over Marianne and Paul in the form of Harry’s plane), we know how this will play out. Surely they do as well? After all, aside from poor Penelope they are adults. Aren’t they?

*. I think the tragedy here is that they’re not. All except for Penelope, who is 17 years old and, at the end, I think relieved to get away from Marianne and her freaky, wounded lovers.
*. At least that’s one reading of what’s going on. It’s a movie that’s both exact and reticent. Paul and Penelope remain ciphers to me. I think they may only be fuel for Harry and Marianne, representing a youthfulness that the older couple feed on. They are also both junior members of the entourage, and perhaps there’s something significant that they both get slapped by their elders as a way of trying to put them in their place.
*. A lot of other movies seem to be floating in the background. Night Moves, for example, with Dakota Johnson reprising her mom’s role in that film as the seductive (or aspiring to be seductive) nymph. Or Harry and Paul going full Women in Love in the pool. Another, stronger precursor is Sexy Beast, with Fiennes in the Ben Kingsley role: a force of chaos, a blast from the past that the wealthy expats or vacationers just want to go away so that they can get on with soaking up the sun and having lazy sex.
*. Reading the responses to the film that I’ve seen there seem to be a number of questions that bother people. Here are a few.
*. (1) Is Penelope really Harry’s daughter? I don’t see any reason to question this but many people do. It seems it would be a subject he’d address ahead of his protestations that he’s not fucking her, but I don’t recall him ever doing so.

*. (2) Do Paul and Penelope fuck? I suppose the short answer here is that it doesn’t matter as much as the impression Marianne and Harry are under that they have. Personally, I have a hard time seeing it. They don’t seem that much into each other. But then Paul is such a himbo anyway I’m not sure he’s into anyone as much as himself, seeing sex as just a bit of servicing.
*. (3) What exactly is Marianne accusing Penelope of at the end? OK, this is more a question that just bothers me. But I mean they all know at this point that Paul killed her father, so that would seem to make Paul and Marianne a bit on the wrong foot. Marianne, however, seems to think the kid has performed an act of lèse-majesté against celebrity. Which, I guess, she has. She’s not a Paul.
*. So the police suspect some wrongdoing because the sand was disturbed at the bottom of the pool? Huh? It didn’t look to me as though there was any sand at the bottom of the pool. Even if it were disturbed, what would someone be able to tell from that? Could they tell when it was disturbed? By what, or by whom, or by how many people? This seems really flimsy to me.

*. The cast received near universal praise. I’m not so sure. Fiennes is a fireball, but those roles are, I think, less difficult than people imagine. It’s not hard acting crazy and stealing all the attention. Did I believe in Harry? I certainly didn’t believe that Marianne was a rock star, and I really like Tilda Swinton. Paul is a blank and Penelope is left underwritten — perhaps by design, and perhaps because nobody understood her.
*. Director Luca Guadagnino was turning into a very hot property around this time. He has what I think is a fresh vision and way of imagining old stories, but his weaknesses are also evident: a random sense of pacing, for example, and the presence of poorly digested gobbets of politics. Flaws that were only going to be magnified in his remake of Suspiria.
*. I do think A Bigger Splash is a good movie, but I can’t shake the feeling that it is so, at least in part, accidentally. Despite making me feel old, I could only identify with Penelope at the end and her escape from all that her parents (i.e., characters of my generation) represent. In so far as I can identify with Harry and Marianne, and it’s hard, I’d like to apologize. But, in my generation’s defence, I’d want to add that we’re better than what came before us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.