Movie Review: A Bigger Splash (2016)
“A Bigger Splash” got good notices (90% on Rotten Tomatoes) when it was released (barely: 378 theaters) in the U.S. this spring. It has a dream cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts; Dakota Johnson impresses. It’s well directed by Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”). The movie promises, and delivers, sex—never a bad deal.
The problem? I got bored with the premise. It’s a Garden of Eden story where the snake is too obviously a snake. You watch and think, “You know, you really should get rid of that snake," and they don’t, and bad things happen, and who cares.
With a friend like Harry
Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a rock star temporarily reduced to whispers after a throat operation, and nursed and pampered by her younger husband, Paul De Smedt (Schoenaerts), a hunky documentarian, as they vacation in Pantelleria, a remote Italian island in the Mediterranean. They’re having a post-coital moment on the beach when her phone rings. It’s Harry Hawkes (Fiennes), music producer (Rolling Stones, etc.), and, it turns out, her former lover. He’s talking so much he doesn’t even realize he’s talking to Paul. He’s on a plane. To the island. He’s landing in five minutes “with a surprise.” Then the flight attendant forces him to hang up and the shadow of the plane passes over Paul and Marianne’s idyllic spot. Nice bit.
The surprise is his daughter, Penelope (Johnson), Pen for short, whom he didn’t know he had until a year earlier, and with whom he’s overly affectionate in a creepy, Donald Trumpian kind of way.
Who they are is revealed after a dinner in an absurd outdoor restaurant in the hills/graves of the island. Harry and Pen have no place to stay, so Marianne finally offers their rented villa. This is their reaction.
Harry: Oh Christ, that took forever.
Pen: Is there a pool?
His reaction made me laugh, hers made me roll my eyes. It gets worse. Harry, with his boundless, narcissistic energy, takes over. He fills their refrigerator with booze—even though Paul is an alcoholic. He tries to get Marianne to sing—even though she’s not supposed to talk. Without asking, he invites over a mother and daughter, who aren’t exactly horrible, but they’re not worth anyone’s time. They’re actually perfectly done. They’re exactly the type of people Harry might invite, and exactly the type you wouldn’t want around. As viewer, too, sadly.
How snakey is Harry? He's trying to break them up. He fixed them up in the first place, six years earlier, but now he wants Marianne back. Is that why Pen? For a time, I wondered if she was a plant, meant to seduce Paul, or if that was her own idea. Mostly she walks ahead of everyone, self-contained, a smirk at the ready. I longed to see her age.
Halfway through the film, our foursome splits into two groups: Marianne and Harry go shopping (he seems to know the island better than she), while Paul and Pen go on a mindless, uninteresting hike. Do they do it? She strips for him and lays down on some rather uncomfortable-looking rocks, but the filmmakers leave it up in the air. Nothing subtle about Marianne and Harry, though, who are doing it standing up in the hallway off the kitchen, until, mid-coital, she tells him she’s not leaving Paul; she’s happy with Paul. Tensions mount at dinner (with all of them), and late that night by the pool (Harry and Paul).
Here’s a good little speech Harry gives Paul:
We were friends. Better than brothers. Better than all those shits in their lofts talking about who the fuck cares what, and now you just ... You just tolerate me. Do you know how offensive that is to me? Think what you want, judge the hell out of me, but don't fucking tolerate me.
It's half profound, half bullshit, and unfortunately no one is given rejoinders to Harry’s bullshit: As in: “Well, that’s what happens when you show up unnoticed, don’t give a shit about anyone else, and try to steal my wife.” Nobody says the obvious, but within the movie the obvious keeps happening. As in:
- They’re going to fight here, aren’t they?
- Harry is going to pull him in the pool, right?
- I think one of them is going to die. Probably Harry.
- Yep, Harry.
Is it an epiphany if others realize it first?
For the last half hour the tension in the movie is: “Does Paul get away with it?” but by then I'd stopped caring. Either he gets caught or this thing hangs over them forever. Eden is done; the snake has won. After Paul confesses his crime to Marianne, she frets and struggles and does what she can to protect him, but I kept thinking, “You do realize he’s still a murderer.” She realizes it, too: in the final shot of the film. She goes from the euphoria of Paul’s exoneration to this epiphany. The one I had 15 minutes earlier.
There’s also an 11th-hour reveal that Pen is 17, not 22. Then she cries on the plane home. For Harry? For herself? What a shit she is?
The acting was great, locales beautiful, some subtle Hitchcockian/neo-realism touches throughout. The character of Harry is a nice stretch for Fiennes, who usually plays prim and reserved. But the Garden of Eden needs a subtler snake.