‘A Bigger Splash’: Venice Review

Dakota Johnson and Ralph Fiennes turn up the heat when they visit rock legend Tilda Swinton on a Mediterranean island.

Continuing to experiment with extreme emotional choices motivated by sexual desire, director Luca Guadagnino follows up his critically acclaimed I Am Love with a far less satisfying study of seduction and destruction in A Bigger Splash. This remake of Jacques Deray’s cult 1969 film La Piscine, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin, vaunts an equally cool and desirable cast (Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson) and an updated role for the female lead, who is now a very proactive rock star. But the film feels empty and intellectualized at the core, where it should feel powerfully emotional. Sophisticated shooting, abundant nudity and Johnson’s presence in the naughty nymphet role should generate initial box office for U.S. distributor Fox Searchlight, but it’s a far cry from, say, the realm of Only Lovers Left Alive, in which Swinton scored as a rock ‘n’ roll vampire.

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The Bottom Line

The southern wind rises, but where is it blowing?

The action is set on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, far south off Italy’s coast and currently the landing point for numerous boat people. David Kajganich’s screenplay reminds us of the drama of these desperate migrants, who are glimpsed in passing, confined to mesh cages in front of the police station or hiding amid the island’s dark rocks, and they are tentatively drawn into the story’s ambiguous ending as scapegoats for the rich and careless.

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But the world belongs to the beautiful people. Marianne Lane (Swinton), first glimpsed in a sequined Ziggy Stardust outfit receiving the adulation of a stadium full of fans, is taking time out with her partner Paul (Belgian actor Schoenaerts from Rust and Bone) while her voice heals after an operation. It’s imperative that she not speak above a whisper or, like Julie Andrews, she could lose her singing voice forever. Despite her minimum dialogueSwinton’s sunny intelligence makes words superfluous, as she communicates with broad gestures and a few husky remarks.

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Her idyll with the handsome, loving Paul is brusquely interrupted by the intrusion of her exuberant record producer and ex-lover, Harry (Fiennes), who brashly arrives unannounced with his jail-bait Lolita of a daughter, Penny (Johnson). Descending on their solitude, he turns up the volume of Rolling Stones tracks while talking nonstop about himself. Fiennes brings a manic intensity to the role that is as amusing for the audience as it is grating for Paul. Their relationship is even more complicated by the fact that Harry introduced Marianne to Paul, practically passing her on to the younger man, when he felt their affair was over.

It isn’t.

Harry’s verve for living puts Paul on the defensive, and the normally reliable Schoenaerts struggles to catch up and make his mark next to the unchained Fiennes. A recovering alcoholic, Paul finds himself surrounded by bottles of wine by the devilish Harry who, one begins to suspect, has an agenda.

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Then there is the complication of Penny, who parades around the house in micro-clothes and comes on strong to Paul, when she’s not cuddling her father. She’s not 100 percent convinced he’s her real dad, anyway. Though she announces she’s 22, her long bleached blond hair, childlike body and bratty personality belie it. Like Harry, Penny is a character you love to hate. Both are blessed with some very good lines of dialog, and their catty remarks aim straight at the stability of the “conservative” couple, Paul and Marianne.

It’s all pretty much good fun up to here. Between exploring the island and slumming it around the big local feast of St. Gaetano, the quartet maneuvers for emotional ground.

When Paul takes Penny on a long hike to a deserted bay, and the southern wind called the Scirocco rises, one can feel the power of the landscape to blow away lies and hypocrisy, much like the elements in Roberto Rossellini’s classic study of a married couple, Journey to Italy.  But as the dramatic denouement approaches, the emotional climax is slow in coming, and the film ends on a bizarre and unsatisfying note of farce.

The struggle to turn the story into a modern-looking drama is aided by director of photography Yorick Le Saux, whose credits include Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. The crisp brightness of the island, its distant sea and burnt-out foliage are well used as envelopes for the sometimes amusing, sometimes dramatic goings-on, just as Guadagnino’s bold use of contrasting music from the Stones to Jobim to Verdi, brings a smile. 

Production companies: Frenesy Film Company, Cota Films
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson, Elena Bucci, Corrado Guzzanti, Aurore Clement, Lily McMenamy
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: David Kajganich
Producers: Luca Guadagnino, Michael Costigan
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Costumes: Giulia Piersanti 
Editor: Walter Fasano
Sales Agent:  Studiocanal

No rating, 123 minutes