“Try not to frighten the horses”
More than loosely based upon Alain Page‘s 1969 French script La Piscine, Luca Guadagnino finally follows up his magnificent I Am Love with A Bigger Splash, his first narrative fiction since. It tells the story of a rockstar legend (Tilda Swinton‘s Marianne Lane channeling Ziggy Stardust) and her long-term documentarian boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts‘ Paul De Smedt) as they vacation on a secluded Italian island for much needed recovery—she post-vocal surgery and he not so far removed from a violent suicide attempt spurred by alcoholism. It’s a calming period of naked bodies, sex in the pool, and quiet introspection in the mud before everything is flipped on its head by the arrival of Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes): Marianne’s former lover/producer and Paul’s former best friend.
With this intruder is a daughter no one knew he had named Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Not even Harry knew until less than a year previous and she still isn’t quite certain her parents are telling the truth. This revelation should be neither here nor there except for the fact that Harry is a womanizing lothario who finds it difficult not to flirt with any female crossing his path—Penelope no exception. But he didn’t come to parade this young woman. No, he’s hoping to win back his one true love, the woman he actually intentionally played matchmaker for by introducing Paul. Marianne is happy, though. She’s embraced the quiet life with a stable man. There will always be love for Harry, but never again in that way.
You can imagine the psychological travails of the heart that ensue as lust worms its way into their respective minds. Will Marianne fall prey to Harry’s advances? Will Paul to Penelope’s? What’s actually going on between father and daughter and is the love shared by Marianne and Paul strong enough to survive? Add an older friend of Harry’s and her daughter(?) who both fawn over the aging music pioneer with no sign of quitting, a subplot so far in the background about refugees I’m still unsure of its meaning, and a super fan police captain (Corrado Guzzanti) who tips his hand as soon as he’s introduced despite the filmmakers thinking his adoration would be a surprise by the end and you’re in for a wild ride.
It’s a hilarious one too once Fiennes gets going. He’s having a blast as Harry—never ceasing to relay truth bombs and gibberish in equal measure while dancing, stroking his ego, and acting as though he’d screw anyone willing no matter gender, sexuality, age, or beauty. His unending vigor brings out some excitement from Swinton as well. She’s not supposed to talk due to the surgery, but he has a way of cajoling her to do so. There’s chemistry between them, almost as powerful as that cultivated with Schoenaerts but from opposite ends of love’s spectrum. She’s alive with Harry’s excess and happy with Paul’s security. Neither is permanent as artistic life risks way too much for that, but they are thick as thieves regardless of present-day friction.
The wild card in all this is Penelope. She’s a complex character that’s almost impossible to read. She’ll egg on her father when he fawns over her, peer at Paul with desire because she possesses it or simply wants to rile him up, and constantly throw an abrasive demeanor towards Marianne seemingly without cause. Penelope wants to have fun and yet she’s content lying by the pool gleaning details—her mind always racing to get an upper hand for God knows what. There are secrets there that you’d assume would be revealed once the tone shifts two-thirds of the way through into straight dramatics and yet she only grows more opaque. They all do for that matter, the unadulterated entertainment screeching to a sudden halt.
I love how the moment when any other film would throw a blatant wrench into the mix by having its two pairs swap comes and goes without consummation. One coupling occurs off-screen and the other stops before it begins. What’s intriguing is that these non-events prove to be potentially worse than if they were followed through. Rather than anger in discovery, the four return to the dinner table with personal guilt, regret, and jealousy. It should explode with an incendiary blast of emotional highs and lows as more flashbacks and stories explain their relationships to the minutest detail, but it doesn’t. Instead there comes a sharp staccato slap and an almost painfully silent aftermath that asks more questions than answers. It never quite works for me.
Here was this fast-paced adventure of the past, present, and future with so much pent-up sexuality and intellectual restraint by larger than life characters willing to act rather than think and it finds itself languishing in a generic accidental murder with would-be consequences. How they react is less authentic than it is pre-planned by screenwriter David Kajganich to deflect the impending fracture of romances and friendships alike. The fun and games evaporate into thin air and the theatrical melodrama is replaced by over-stuffed severity. It’s as though one movie ended and another began—one grand ol’ time making way for a buzz kill without apparent purpose besides seeing what might happen. Unfortunately, most of the ensuing conflict stems from facts we hadn’t yet known.
These discoveries don’t really add anything to the narrative either. They just introduce more reason for us to despise everyone for being vain narcissists unaware of what’s happening in the world. Maybe this is why we hear news reports of unrest and crime circling refugees. Maybe it’s why we’re shown the fear in Paul and Penelope’s eyes when crossing paths with a few sizing them up on the rocks. Somehow with all this human carnage we’re made to care about celebrities—famous legends even the police captain can’t help fawning over. These people party hard and sometimes tragedy strikes. He has better things to do and as the end neared I wondered if I did too. Luckily the fun at the start ultimately outweighs its undercooked climactic suspense.
 (From L-R): Ralph Fiennes as “Harry,” Matthias Schoenaerts as “Paul,” Tilda Swinton as “Marianne” and Dakota Johnson as “Penelope” in A BIGGER SPLASH. Photo by Jack English. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Tilda Swinton as “Marianne” and Ralph Fiennes as “Harry” in A BIGGER SPLASH. Photo by Jack English. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Dakota Johnson as “Penelope Lanier” and Matthias Schoenaerts as “Paul De Smedt” in A BIGGER SPLASH. Photo by Jack English. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved