Luca Guadagnino’s relatively nondescript early films gave little indication of the level of artistry he displayed with 2009’s I Am Love. Providing a sumptuous, sensory overload, this masterfully orchestrated drama was compelling on many levels, including in its performances, led by the fearless Tilda Swinton, and its brash, if often overbearing use of carefully chosen music by John Adams. Now, six years later, the director’s delayed follow up A Bigger Splash (2015) arrives with high expectations attached.
On a scenic, volcanic Italian island, a barely-able-to-speak glamour indie rock star Marianne Lane (Swinton), is resting her over-strained voice whilst holed up in a villa with younger boyfriend Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). But now her former producer, good friend, and occasional lover Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) is flying in from the mainland with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Fanning) for a visit that will fatefully upset the locals’ dynamic and bring the past into collision with the future.
In general, Guadagnino’s film delivers in recreating some of the stylistic flair of I Am Love. Though less excessive in aesthetic obsessions, the film immediately grabs hold and the exotic locale and sheer bravura of Fiennes’s uninhibited performance take it to another level. There are moments when the love triangle aspect of the plot flirts with enticing elucidation. Deep undercurrents of unease threaten to break through to the surface though often, just when Guadagnino seems on the verge of taking these characters to the brink of a shocking transfiguration, he frustratingly pulls them back into a more conventional shape. His offbeat, diverse musical choices often strike distractingly discordant notes as well, though Harry’s very physical sing along with a Rolling Stones track is inspired in its wild extroversion.
Guadagnino’s trio of actors all make a deep impression with the more subtle nuances evoked by Swinton and Schoenaerts just as impressive as Fiennes and his brash externalisation of Harry’s base desires and emotional greed. Fanning is all cool glances and icy aversion but her relative mediocrity, thankfully, has little bearing on the trajectory of Guadagnino’s drama.
The chief failing of David Kajganich’s screenplay – based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine – is its wretched inability to find a satisfying ending. In fact, the final half-hour, beyond the staging of a key event, almost seems to have been ad-libbed or, at least, hastily devised mere moments before shooting, so haphazard and fluid are its tone and structure. It’s a bit of a mess actually, and seriously detracts from what had been, until that point, a mostly riveting, self-contained chamber drama alive with unpredictability.