2015 must be the year of unlikely onscreen dancers. After Oscar Isaac’s arm-flinging turn in Ex Machina, along comes Ralph Fiennes to steal the young whippersnapper’s thunder. An early scene in A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up to I Am Love, sees Fiennes’ Harry prance around the living room and rooftop of a Pantellerian villa to the strains of the the Rolling Stones’ ‘Emotional Rescue’. We know, and expect to find, Fiennes in roles of a much darker hue, but this scene is an expression of such ditzy, campy joy that it might make M. Gustave blush. Between this and The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s clear that Fiennes has unleashed his inner comedian, and it’s a wonder to behold.”
Fiennes’ giddiness is but one intriguing element of A Bigger Splash. The villa in which music producer Harry and his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) have come to stay belongs to his friends, photographer Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) and rockstar (and Harry’s ex) Marianne (Tilda Swinton). While Harry never stops talking to the irritation of all around him, Marianne is recovering from surgery on her vocal chords, and can barely speak at all. Communication, or lack thereof, is a big theme of A Bigger Splash. Here are a group of people who, by dint of affliction and pasts shared (or not), cannot figure out how best to speak to each other. Penelope has only come into Harry’s life recently, and the closeness of their relationship raises eyebrows. Johnson puts enough diffident distance between herself, her companions and us to maintain Penelope’s mysteries until they’re ready to be divulged. Those who don’t come to the island with secrets will leave with some. From the outset, with Swinton and Schoenaerts tanning their naked selves by the pool, A Bigger Splash sets itself up as a potential hotbed of sex an intrigue, and it duly obliges. Guadagnino has cited Patricia Highsmith as an influence on his script, as sexuality, violence and self-regard combine to make a singular, heady stew.
Driving the action along is cracking interplay between the leads. While Fiennes goes off the leash and Johnson observes bemusedly, Schoenaerts and Swinton hide their grimace. Their chemistry together is electric. Still, throw in one ex, one blonde twenty-something, a handful of flashbacks and plenty of sun, and who knows what could happen? Lest this all sound a bit soapy, it’s no more so than I Am Love. The climate is conducive to a touch of melodrama (If you’re not stripping off, the heat may may you want to kill someone). A Bigger Splash is a remake of the 1969 film La Piscine, but its psychosexual undertones put in in a pod with the likes of Ozon’s Swimming Pool and The Swimmer. In the latter, Burt Lancaster shared Fiennes’ proclivity for pool lengths, but not was not so inclined towards nudity.
Though we’re on similarly-stylish terrain to I Am Love (kudos to DoP Yorick Le Saux, once again), A Bigger Splash at once feels more relaxed and more grounded. The truth behind the relationships is only revealed gradually, as the Fiennes-driven frivolity slowly dissipates into something more pressing and more off-kilter. Meanwhile, hanging in the balmy air is a clash between cultures. As Marianne and Paul’s house-guests arrive, we are given glimpses of African migrants across the island, whether sneaking around fresh off a boat, or held in barbed-wire pens at the police station. In one scene, a character points across the azure sea to the coast of Tunisia, some 60 miles away. Try as one might to imagine otherwise, but the problems of both past and future lie on the horizon. Such nods and scenes are frighteningly prescient, and A Bigger Splash has more than enough intelligence to carry such thematic weight.
A Bigger Splash is due for release in Irish cinemas February 2016.