A Bigger Splash is prettily packaged but the characters are unlikeable and unconvincing and the narrative an ill-conceived mess.
This is a good-looking film. Its setting, the small volcanic Mediterranean island of Pantelleria, is scenically spectacular, as is the view from the rented holiday lodgings in which most of the action takes place. Then there are the female stars, whose bodies the cameras stalk and linger over like a hidden pervert with a telescope. Read, lots of gratuitous crotch, arse and tit shots – oh and sex scenes. This is an “erotic thriller” after all.
Except that it’s not erotic or thrilling. Good looks don’t add up to much when there is little else of worth beneath the packaging: the narrative is a mess, the casting is dodgy, and the characters are unappealing, unconvincing and hard to care about.
Worst by far is the unbearably irritating Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a music producer who in his glory days worked with big names including the Rolling Stones – and he never lets up about it. He’s supposed to be the eternal wild rocknroller, but comes across as a dick, a puerile Peter Pan with ADD who hasn’t moved out of the 70s, still begins every sentence with “fuck” (it was anti-establishment once), thinks he’s the epitome of cool but dances like Dad, and fancies himself as a sex-god (which manifests in exhibitionism – he never wastes an opportunity to get his gear off in front of the girls and leap starkers into the swimming pool).
The girls include his ex, famous rock star Marianne Lane (a miscast Tilda Swinton, who really doesn’t look the part) and his hot, pouty teenage daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whom he relates to more like a sugar-daddy than a father. Granted, he’s only recently learnt that she’s his daughter, but does that make the hands-on attention he lavishes on her alright? No. It merely reinforces the perception that the bloke’s just an id on legs and a bit creepy into the bargain.
Dramatically, though, he’s the catalyst that gets the action going. Here’s the set-up. Marianne is mute after surgery on her vocal cords, and recuperating on the island with her man, filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They’re making the most of their time out, lazing at the beach, ravishing each other, ravishing each other again etc. Their romantic idyll is cut short when Harry and daughter arrive with minimal notice.
Harry still has eyes for Marianne and, evidently low in EQ, declares repeatedly that he “gave” her to Paul, who naturally enough simmers with jealousy and resentment. The silent Marianne sits around uncomfortably, radiating discouraging signals to Harry, but without enough commitment to reassure Paul. She registers no outrage that Harry thinks of her as his possession to give – and take back – at will.
Brooding Penelope, meanwhile, says little, content to glower disdainfully from the pool’s edge while flaunting her luscious bod. She’s clearly up to no good and intent on participating in the sexual shenanigans that are on the cards just as soon as she’s dealt an opportunity. Her crosshairs are on Paul, but she seems willing to practise on Daddy – anything to get under Marianne’s nose.
A director like Polanski could have worked a treat with this material, but Guadagnino is not up to the task. In his hands, the piece seems stuck in some developmentally arrested Boomer fantasy. The characters behave like silly teenagers, apart from the teenager, Penelope, who has the guile of a practised femme fatale double her age. But what the hell is her motivation?
This is the glaring question hanging over Marianne, also. She and Paul are shown to have a solid relationship, and sexually they’re hot and happening. Yet she is tempted by her terminally immature egotistical ex. Why? A quickie for old time’s sake? It makes no sense.
Whatever the whys, there are multiple transgressions, culminating in a murder. We know whodunnit, but of course the cops don’t. The head cop is sharp and experienced, but misses the suspect with most obvious motive, looking with bewildering suspicion towards a group of refugees who are briefly introduced late in the piece, as if on afterthought. They should be red herrings, but instead function to take the heat off the killer, preparing the way for him to escape responsibility for his crime. And a return to the status quo.
Leaves you wondering about the point of it all.
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