A Bigger Splash is a sensual melodrama with sun-baked Italian noir intentions that don’t fully reveal themselves until late in the film. Until then it spends a good long time watching its characters behave, collecting them in a contained space and tracking their interactions, subtle shifts in demeanor, taking and giving offense, drawn to and repulsed by each other. There’s an androgynous rock goddess (Tilda Swinton) recovering from vocal chord surgery staying at an isolated villa on a small Italian island with her handsome documentarian boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts). They’re comfortable and quiet, enjoying reading and sunning, mostly nude. So it’s a rude awakening to change their routine – and cover up a bit – when they have unexpected guests in the form of the rocker’s ex, a preening music producer (Ralph Fiennes) and his 22-year-old daughter (Dakota Johnson), who he only recently learned existed. They come to overshadow their vacation, quite literally blotting out the sun with their arrival as their descending plane casts its silhouette on a sunny beach.
Director Luca Guadagnino, whose 2009 feature I Am Love was an even more sumptuous melodrama starring Swinton, sets about creating a lush European character piece under which can simmer an undercurrent of eroticism and danger. The four people cooped up in an island getaway have intertwining pasts – it was Fiennes who first introduced Schoenaerts to Swinton, a couple who have now been together for many years, weathering storms that weigh with slowly revealed heaviness upon their relationship – and yet often try to act like they don’t. On one level it’s a movie about languorous rock and rollers at rest, stretching out poolside, cooking wonderful meals, reading interesting literature, spinning great records. They engage in passionate behavior, dancing, swimming, and eating amongst skin, sun, lapping waves, and fragrant fauna. What’s better than a late night karaoke session at a local street festival or an impromptu dance party? And yet what are these people really up to? It’s not always clear. There’s a lot of tension here, sexual – they’re four beautiful people in close quarters, after all – and otherwise.
It’s a movie about looking, we at them and they at each other. David Kajganich’s screenplay, based on a 1969 Alain Delon film called La Piscine, offers plenty of excuses to bring characters together, trapping them in encounters tracing shifts and jabs in relationships, often communicated nonverbally in a glance held in a shot/reverse shot, or a showy camera swivel, or a reflection off a pair of glasses. Guadagnino deploys splendid Yorick Le Saux camerawork in ways that show off its fluid dexterity, pushing in and swinging around, or cut into in quick flashes of distemper. It’s a movie that rests on its characters making eyes at one another – lovers expressing empathy or disgust, a preening braggart making it all about him, or a quiet girl sitting alone at a remove, testing the waters without making the content of her thoughts clear. It tracks silent transmissions of charged implications, tracing fault lines to an inevitable crack-up. The danger of something bad happening is always present, though its exact cause or source is kept tingling just out of reach. Deft flashbacks help reveal tangled emotions long past, which help contextualize the confusion of the present.
Four terrific performances animate what could easily be a frustratingly vague haze. Because the actors are comfortably rooted in their characters’ skins – the better to pull off an easy, breezy, equal-opportunity nudity from all involved at one point or another – it’s worth investing in their circumstances and puzzling out their motivations. Fiennes takes center stage as a man who can’t stop talking, pick pick picking at characters’ insecurities in ways that are equally unaware and yet too targeted to be totally dismissed as accident. This is in contrast to Swinton, whose recovering rocker is under medical orders to remain silent, her only dialogue spoken sparingly in a pained whisper. Schoenaerts has a solid masculine sensitivity about him, clearly in love, a doting caretaker totally annoyed by their unexpected guests, and yet retains corners of mystery about his emotional place. Lastly, Johnson is what? She’s totally unknowable up to the end, at once powerless and holding all the cards, an open book and a continually unfolding mystery. Is she a schemer or merely aloof, a seductress or a guileless id? As we learn just what these characters mean and mean to each other, the conflict at a low-boil is clearly ready to boil over.
When it reaches its deliriously unsettled conclusion, the tantalizing surface composure works to make it very cold, rejecting conventional satisfying conclusions or answers. What could be over-the-top is instead underplayed with dark comedy and cold laughs. (Listen to what a police chief barks over the phone about the morgue freezer and tell me it’s not going for deliberate gallows humor.) It is a bit deflating to turn such a hothouse of melodrama into a bitterly ironic noir in its final moments. But Guadagnino plays by the rules he set up, brining the characters in inevitable conflict and springing surprising developments with a certain merciless logic. Sure, it would be nice to cavort in the sun with gorgeous half-undressed people, but the fun has to end sometime, and in this case the real world encroaches through petty jealousies and sharp pangs of regret. What’s the worth of a passionate Dionysian lifestyle if it’s so fragile people who know just the right exploitable cracks in the façade can bring it to the brink of ruin?