The island of Pantelleria, a hot stretch of rocks in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily is the setting for Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash. The film stars Tilda Swinton, as Marianne Lane, a well-known rock star who seeks the natural isolation of Pantelleria as a place to recover from surgery to her vocal cords in the company of her lover, Paul played by Matthias Schoenaerts.
It’s a perfect place to hide from the world and indulge in passionate and no-holds- barred sex. That is until the couple’s friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) decides to make an unexpected visit and present Marianne and Paul with an equally surprising revelation: Harry has a daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whom he barely knows and wants to indulge her with a taste of Europe before she departs for college and her mother.
Harry is an unstoppable force of energy and unapologetic raunchy behavior, which he clarifies to Paul in an ironic and patronizing tone after an argument: “We’re all obscene, everyone’s obscene. That’s the whole point.” Harry, Marianne’s former record producer, proves to have an indisputable influence over her, brought on by a previous personal relationship between them, of which we see several flashbacks sequences. Their connection was one of recklessness, drugs, and sex which eventually faded when Harry wanted to move on from Marianne, and decides to introduce her to his friend Paul, an enthusiastic documentary filmmaker.
While Marianne and Paul find solace with each other, Harry seems intent to draw them into his orbit of Machiavellian manipulation. With full knowledge of Paul’s alcoholic past, Harry tempts him at every turn to indulge in drinking, going to the extent of stocking up the couple’s refrigerator with wine when Marianne invites him and Penelope to stay at their house when Harry claims that he did not book a hotel. Penelope seems as skilled as her father in the art of stirring the already tense pot and throwing sidelong and sexually charged looks to Paul in Marianne’s full view.
“You’re pretty domesticated for a rock star”, Penelope pointedly says to Marianne when they find themselves alone in the house. While seemingly the words don’t carry much venom, the significance of Penelope’s remark is not missed by Marianne who sees it as it is: an unspoken challenge. The younger woman’s relationship with her father is also somewhat disturbing, attracting stares and unwanted comments from people at a karaoke bar when they indulge in a not very father-daughterly appropriate embrace.
Harry is relentless in accosting Marianne about their past relationship and wanting to awaken dormant feelings in her at any cost, including making her sing when she shouldn’t, and getting her alone at every opportunity. Penelope in turn, does the same with Paul, acting as a beacon for his frustrations regarding the closeness that is still evident between Harry and Marianne. The result is a plethora of impulsive passions and rancorous violence, which can only bring forth an ending besmirched with tragedy.
A Bigger Splash was inspired by Jacques Deray’s 1969 film “La Piscine” starring Alain Delon, Romi Schneider, and Jane Birkin in the roles of Jean-Paul, Marianne, and Penelope. While the similarities to La Piscine are evident, Guadagnino’s own style comes through in the beauty of the mise-en-scene and the detectable sensuality throughout the story, and unexpectedly adding the Tunisian refugee crisis to the mix. The beauty of the setting of Pantelleria is made even more enticing with the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux, who worked with both Guadagnino and Swinton in the 2009 film I Am Love.
Although Swinton’s performance as Marianne is particularly astounding due to the fact that she speaks very little in the film and instead delivers much with her eyes, body language, and facial expressions, it is Ralph Fiennes as the debauched Harry who steals the show, with frequent full-frontal nudity, singing, 70’s style dancing, and reminiscent “Rolling Stones days” anecdotes. Dakota Johnson brings forth a Lolita-drenched Penelope, complete with white sunglasses and braless breasts clearly visible underneath sheer knit tops. The lollipop, however, is nowhere in sight.
A Bigger Splash is a study in temptation, envy, and sexual appetites that overwhelm the senses and leaves a lingering feeling of an unexpected but not completely surprising comeuppance.