With a cast that matches its cinematic decadence, A Bigger Splash undulates with sexuality, writhing in the psychological destruction of its subjects. Superstars who have swapped charisma for human emotion, and who have adopted debauchery as a way of life, are a staple in Luca Guadagnino’s film, his eye finely attuned to capturing the moment when they crash violently into one another.
Seventies rock icon Marianne Lane (a mute Tilda Swinton) spends sun-drenched days on a small Italian island (Pantelleria) having passionately quiet sex with her young beau, Paul (a brooding Matthias Schoenaerts), and recovering from a recent vocal cord surgery. These unspoiled days of lustful immodesty become interrupted when Lane’s manager/ex-lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), drops by for an unannounced visit, his undying love for Marianne as plainly evident as the boredom shown on his travel partner/daughter’s face. The 22-year-old Penelope (Dakota Johnson) has only recently discovered her biological father, and the sexual tension between the angsty youth and the youthfully exuberant music icon become an awkward backdrop in every scene. Masquerading as nothing more than an extravagant vacation, A Bigger Splash festoons every look, touch and conversation with a thick prurience; nothing is to be taken at face value, except for the basest of all human urges.
From the very first shot of a nude, sunbathing Marianne (the film itself opens on a flashback), Guadagnino delights in the opulence of his carefree cast of wealthy ne’er-do-wells. The arrival of Harry and Penelope catalyzes a transformation in these first delicately sexual moments which quickly become a bacchanal of sensuousness covering all aspects of life. The restless camera can only briefly focus on the heightening drama before fixating on the gluttonous moments that surround these life-weary travelers. The gutting of a fish, the peeling of a piece of fruit, or sordid once-overs given to exposed bits of flesh are the vulgar hallmarks of this ostentatious lifestyle, in which the audience is forced to become an equal participant.
Beyond mood-altering stylistic choices, Guadagnino decorates his world with visual metaphors. Most prominently, the film’s title points to the constant and boyish competition between Paul and Harry for Marianne’s adoration, most of which centers around the large pool at the heart of the villa. Harry’s detestation of wearing a shirt, or any sort of clothes, reveals a communist hammer and sickle proudly stamped on his chest. Perhaps a politically-motivated choice made in his youth, the symbol informs his ideologies extending far beyond social and economic terms into love and sex. Through constant flirtations with Marianne, women young and old, other men and even his newfound daughter, Harry’s relationship to life is communistic in every sense — everything belongs to everybody. Spending time with these society elites, the audience is shown just how insular life can become at the top. Fame has pushed Marianne and Paul into a kind of utopian seclusion, from which they cannot bear to escape. Like the biblical snake, Guadagnino confronts the couple with several serpentine invaders, and each, unlike its Genesis counterpart, is thrown back into the wilderness… there will be no apple of knowledge here.
A vivid and lavish feast for the eyes, A Bigger Splash takes an assemblage of indescribably talented actors and puts them in a pressure cooker of sex and vice. A luxuriant dive into the crystal blue sea of moral indifference, Guadagnino’s razor focus cuts to the core of his characters, clouding the waters with blood these egocentric pop stars forgot they were capable of shedding.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.