I admit it, what drew me to this film was its stellar cast. It was a dream team I had often hoped to see in one picture but never quite had the fortune of seeing actualized except in passing in a Wes Anderson Film. The combination of Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes alone was enough to make my mouth water and the film with its other two leads left me satiated if only a little thirsty for more. First things first, Pantelleria is not only the breathtakingly arid setting of the film but the film itself. A landscape so stunning and enticing at first glance you almost forget about the stark glare of the sun and the vast nothingness of its steaming volcanic residue laden terrain. The pool and the villa offer our characters a momentary respite from the heat and the emptiness but it proves insufficient, much like the island, the rock star, her playmate, her ex-manager and lover and his new found daughter all add their own brand of steaming tension to the atmosphere. Based on Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), A Bigger Splash succeeds on most counts and fails in few but we forgive the shortcomings because it’s just so darn decadent, sensual and attractive.
The most stunning aspect of the film is undoubtedly is location and aesthetic, which blends and weaves its way through the familiar styles of indie casualness and road movie spontaneity to create its own emotional landscape. This film is exquisite to look at, like a well-laid out holiday table it offers you bits and pieces of what the perfect exotic getaway looks like. The colour scheme is easy on the eye and complements the characters and Pantelleria so well you almost believe they are in and of the land, a notion the film convincingly proves otherwise in spite of appearances. Tilda’s Dior jumpsuits and dresses and muteness added its own unique contribution to the whole.
The plot follows vacationing post-throat surgery rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her boy toy Paul who are rudely disturbed and deprived of their lazy, nude days of incessant lovemaking by former manager and muse Harry and his daughter Penelope. The days following Harry’s intrusion brings out the best and the worst in the couple and pushes one to a breaking point with no consequences but one significant casualty. The sentence” don’t let it upset you” lingers well after the credits role as the audience comes to terms and feels something akin to an uneasy relief to know that some have it easy, too easy in fact and that while refugees are banging on the door the likes of Marianne enjoy freshly made ricotta in the comfort of their self-absorbed bubbles. Although the migrant crisis in Pantelleria is perpetually humming in the background of the film it never quite makes the splash it should for the characters or the audience save for the one scene in which Paul and Penny have an uncomfortable exchange with a few refugees on their way to the lake.
A Bigger Splash lets audiences see Ralph Fiennes like they’ve never seen him and we are grateful. There’s not a hint of L’air du Panache or the classic austereness we have come to expect from him. The dance sequence to the Stone’s “Emotional Rescue” alone deserves credit for it perhaps one of the most mesmerising moments of the film. His chemistry and relationship with Marianne (Tilda) is something both tragic but poetically familiar and his untimely exit from the manse was shockingly poignant. We as an audience also “tolerated” him for most of the movie only to miss him once he was gone. As brash and unhinged as Harry made us and the other characters feel, he was a force, a real human being to be reckoned with. And this is set in stark contrast to the cool detachment of Marianne and the below the surface insecurities and rage of her new lover.
Which brings us to Paul; he is perhaps the single most perplexing character in the film. Not because we learn he has a drinking problem, attempted suicide and left a note with just Marianne’s name written on it but because we also get to hear that it was Harry who introduced him to Marianne and passed the buck so to speak to the young photographer friend. Played by Matthias Schoenaerts this was perhaps the most underwhelming performance of the quartet. Paul is an uninteresting mystery and accessory that never really becomes the subject of conversation at the dinner party but there he is none the less, in the heart of the film’s plot as well as in the affections of its two female characters.
The true discovery in the film for me, on a personal note, was Dakota Johnson whose more famous role as the female “protagonist” of those several shades of grey but nowhere near interesting movies I happened to have missed, and refuse to apologise for. Dakota plays the mysteriously menacing Penny (Penelope) whose true motives and character are concealed for most of the movie. This is the girl who you think is going to be trouble because if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and is the daughter of an especially loud and rambunctious duck…you get the picture, but the last few scenes prove otherwise. Turns out that for all her flirty mystique and feigned indifference, she is human after all, more so than her fellow vacationers save for her father. Johnson has a genuine screen presence and the ability to dominate a scene in a way few newcomers do, which makes her interesting to watch.
The film’s last scene was perhaps the most memorable and significant in terms of the general theme of the piece. Marianne laughs and cries herself silly as the police serjeant tells her what wonderful people they are and we are left with the same sad happy truth that this is the nature of the world we inhabit but also the uncomfortable hope that we may be so lucky to experience such a hall pass through life.