FILM REVIEW – A BIGGER SPLASH. With Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson. Written by David Kajganich. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Rated R for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use. 125 minutes.
An amazing thing happened when Ralph Fiennes started going bald because that’s when the world found out he’s funny. Our dashing English patient had been glowering his way through morose Oscar bait like “The Constant Gardner” and “The Reader” until his surprise appearance halfway through Martin McDonagh’s bitterly hilarious “In Bruges” kicked off one of the great second acts in contemporary careers. No longer tasked with trying to cram himself into ill-fitting romantic leads (anyone remember the dire John Hughes-scripted J.Lo vehicle “Maid in Manhattan?”) Fiennes’ vanity receded with his hairline, and in recent years he’s let his freak flag fly with divinely mannered comic turns in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Hail, Caesar!”
Fiennes touches down like an F-5 tornado in A BIGGER SPLASH, wreaking havoc on the island getaway of his rock-star ex (Tilda Swinton) and her hunky filmmaker boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts). In an early Christmas gift for everyone who’s been aching to see Tilda Swinton play David Bowie, she stars here as fictional glam rocker Marianne Lane, famous for arena anthems and Ziggy Stardust makeup. Recuperating from vocal cord surgery that may or may not spell the end of her decades-long career, Marianne’s hiding out off the coast of Sicily with Schoenarts’ Paul, newly sober and himself recovering from an accident that looked more like a suicide attempt than he cares to admit. This now-domesticated couple is slowly coming to the conclusion that they may be getting too old to rock n’ roll but are still too young to die.
Which is why the last person either of them want to see is Fiennes’ Harry Hawkes, a blast from the past cheerfully inviting himself to crash at their villa. A manic motor-mouth in perpetual motion, he harangues everyone in earshot with his tales of faded glory, especially stories about producing The Rolling Stones’ “Voodoo Lounge” album (as if that were anything to brag about). Harry’s arrived with a surprise–a daughter he himself didn’t even know about named Penelope, played by Dakota Johnson with an indecently overripe sensuality that recalls her mom Melanie Griffith’s iconic jailbait turn four decades ago in Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves.” Harry has come all this way to try and win back Marianne, and he’s not being subtle about it.
Sumptuously shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, “A Bigger Splash” borders on aesthetic overload, with director Luca Guadagnino gorging on scenery, food and every sensory pleasure he can pack into the frame while these four stunning, sexually ravenous folks circle one another in the Mediterranean heat. A loosey-goosey remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 Alain Delon and Romy Schneider starrer “La Piscine,” it’s a throwback to when audiences flocked to European cinema in order to watch pretty people getting it on. Even art movies are so neutered these days that the cheerful erotic charge of “A Bigger Splash” feels like a UFO sighting. Filmmakers have forgotten that fornication can be fun.
Of course it can also ruin everything, and Guadagnino stirs up some expert anguish between Swinton and Fiennes. She’s on vocal rest and barely whispers, but he talks more than enough for everybody. Over the course of the film Harry blossoms into a tragic figure, still aching to be the life of a party he can’t understand ended ages ago. Early on, Fiennes busts out a feat of physical acting that will rank as one of this year’s most indelible moments. Spinning some old vinyl and boring the crowd with over-familiar anecdotes, he happens upon the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” and becomes a man possessed by vintage disco beats. Dorkily, gloriously winding his way around the living room as all around roll their eyes, Harry eventually can’t be contained and dances his way outside, alone.
Ecstatically pumping his arms and hips, he’s a man who cannot bear to let the song be over.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.