A Bigger Splash

By Tim McEown

Mailed on May 16, 2016

Stamp image Priority
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Dear Harry Nilsson
Featured Artist

Dear Harry,

A Bigger Splash is a throwback to the kind of filmmaking I thought had passed from this mortal coil long ago. Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) creates something that would be perfectly at home in any mid-Seventies art house, while never succumbing to the easy pleasures of nostalgia. It is film for the sake of filmmaking, happily untainted by focus groups, or the usual grinding imperatives that seem to circumscribe most popular culture.

It is unsurprising, then, that your song “Jump Into The Fire” should bookend this film. It is shaggy and cacophonous, filled with overlong instrumental breaks and a solipsistic, lyrical nihilism that is utterly in tune with the film’s tone. It’s also a song that is menacing in its subtext, suggesting a compulsive and dangerous obsession—a kind of sub rosa tension that A Bigger Splash exudes from every slightly obscene frame.

Unrepentantly sensualist, A Bigger Splash is filled with performances that match. Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes are completely fascinating despite the fact they both suffer from debilitating conditions. Swinton (doing her best Bowie/Marc Bolan impersonation) is a rock goddess recovering from potentially career-ending throat surgery, who can’t (or rather shouldn’t) speak above a whisper. Fiennes, playing her former producer/lover suffers from a terminal case of hubris. Strident, impulsive and blatantly unconcerned with social conventions, he is nothing but unrestrained id—and their moments together, while rare, are filled with a nervous energy that would set lesser folk on fire.

The story revolves around a villa in Sicily where two men and two women find themselves intertwined—often literally—and at each other’s throats. Dakota Johnson as Fiennes newly found young daughter, and Matthias Schoenaerts as Swinton’s love and nursemaid, are just fine in their roles, but this is Fiennes and Swinton’s vehicle. It is their unresolved issues that bring about the end of paradise; a resolution that seems inevitable from the first frame.

Adapted loosely from 1969’s joint Italian/French production, La Piscine, A Bigger Splash plays with similar themes and yet is completely unique. The sexual politics are front and center, as each member of the quartet wears their psychic damage as casually as they lose their clothes. Which is to say there is an inordinate amount of Ralph Fiennes wang on display. But this underlines how utterly European this film is, filled the sort of bacchanalia that is often found in Italian cinema.

A Bigger Splash is, in some ways, simple in its ambitions. Even when the larger world intrudes on these four obscenely self-absorbed humans, it is either an impediment or happy circumstance, but never anything more. Their universe is the four of them with the occasional space for a select few. From beginning to end this is an intimate film, both spatially and emotionally, despite its leisurely pace and beautiful setting.

The film details, in exquisite shot after exquisite shot, the sexual jealousy and profound emotional fragility that dooms all four of the players. And if the narrative drifts to and fro in the Siroccos that punctuate the last third of the film, it simply underpins how emotionally untethered these people are. Always on the verge of some personal disaster—whether self-inflicted or the result of simple misfortune, each is, in turn, fascinating in an imminent-train-wreck kind of way.

When the first few bars of your song introduced us to this world, it immediately suggests a particular tone—slightly drunk, hedonistic, and more than a little out of control. And when the final few bars usher us toward an ending that is both inevitably pathetic and unpleasant, I was left completely satisfied.

In the same way certain songs, despite their flaws, (or perhaps because of them) manage to undermine the commercial requirements that shape most art, A Bigger Splash scratches an itch that is too esoteric to commodify.



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