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A Bigger Splash

Tilda Swinton is at the center of all things. (We learned that in “Dr. Strange,” I think. Or maybe it was in “Only Lovers Left Alive;” I forget.) In “A Bigger Splash,” she is a rock star who looks like she peaked in the makeup-and-jumpsuits era of rock.  Now, much later, she is recovering from vocal cord surgery on an island in Italy, soaking up the sun, enjoying the silence, being tenderly cared for by her much younger lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenarts.) It looks like an ideal vacation, far from the madding crowd.

But then Harry shows up, unannounced, uninvited.  Harry, played with incredible energy and commitment by Ralph Fiennes in a standout performance, is her former producer and lover.  But he’s also incredibly charming and charismatic, great at getting his own way, and immediately lights up any room he’s in and turns every gathering into a party.  He also has no shame, no limits or boundaries, and no problem pissing people off or barging in where he isn’t welcome.  You forgive him his excesses, because he’s so much fun, but that gets old after a while, and nobody forgives Harry as easily and readily as Harry does.

The first time I watched this film, I found it mildly amusing, but I had a hard time caring about these clearly affluent, privileged people.  Harry clearly wants Marianne back, and he’s brought along his daughter who sees an opportunity to cause trouble by seducing Paul. But why should I care how these people decide to combine themselves in the sack? I didn’t really like or relate to any of them, and I couldn’t figure out what was at stake.

The second time I watched it, it seemed more symbolic/metaphoric than real to me, and that helped me to see that what is at stake is Marianne. Harry is the devil on one shoulder; he’s her destructive past, and he never stops trying to pull her back into his hedonistic lifestyle.  And he’s incredibly seductive and persuasive.  Paul is the angel on the other shoulder; he is helping her to heal and find peace and contentment in her life.  But he’s kind of boring, and doesn’t make her laugh like Harry does.  “A Bigger Splash” is a battle between the two of them, and it’s possible that the whole thing happens in her head.  Maybe they’re both just sides of her own personality, battling it out.

That interpretation is probably too simplistic, and doesn’t explain everything.  Most notably, it doesn’t explain Penny, Harry’s daughter, and what she’s doing there.  But it does explain why Marianne, the silent center, is the only one who seems to have a character arc — from beginning to end, Harry is reliably destructive and chaotic, Paul the opposite, and Penny just a troublemaker.  None of these characters ever, even for a second, express anything else. (Until the puzzling end, when Penny isn’t what she seems to be, but it’s not at all clear what she is.)

Ralph Fiennes is a lot of fun to watch. Dakota Johnson isn’t, but maybe that’s on purpose (that said, I have yet to see her play a character I liked.) Luca Guadagnino directs with a great deal of exuberance, and really likes naked bodies – there’s ten times as much nudity here as in any other movie I’ve seen in 2016.  Maybe too much exuberance and nudity. There were a couple of times when the camera resembles a chihuahua that’s been in the house too long. “A Bigger Splash” is excessive in every way — there are too  many characters, too much story, too much nudity and sex and good food and sunshine and beautiful landscapes, too many cameras, too much movement, too many cuts, too much energy.  But somehow, all that too much adds up to a better than average movie.  A little Harry goes a long way.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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