The impossibility of getting away from it all, rendered beautifully
Sometimes you want to go to the movies and see four actors doing amazing work in a wonderful film. That’s what you’re going to get when you see Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash. This is a movie with layers of meaning, with people saying things when they shouldn’t, and not saying things when they should. It’s a bit contrived, but very real. Let’s try to convince you to see it so we can talk about it later. Here’s my best shot.
The wonderful Tilda Swinton is Marianne Lane, a world famous rock star who has recently had surgery on her vocal chords, “like Adele.” She’s disappeared to Pantelleria, an island in the Mediterranean famous for its capers. She spends her days and nights with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), laying around quietly by the pool, having sex in the pool, laying around in the pool, having sex on the beach, basically relaxing and screwing all day and night. It’s the perfect, quiet life, and she’s never been happier.
Then one day she and Paul get a phone call from Harry, a loud and boisterous person from their past, who has flown to the island with his daughter Penelope, played by Dakota Johnson. The idyllic life Marianne and Paul have chosen for themselves disappears in an instant as we watch these characters interact, slowly learning about their history in each others’ lives, and discover the hidden and not-so-hidden motivations that make them tick.
The movie is equal parts drama and comedy. Unlike a lot of movies where a chaos agent is dropped into someone’s normal life and everyone hates him and why doesn’t he see that he’s terrible, the chaos agent here is a truly likeable and fun person. He’s from a past that others are trying to escape, but you actually wonder if they are right to do so. His character constantly questions whether or not Paul and Marianne are truly happy here, or whether they should be trying to live their former glory.
Dakota Johnson is the breakout star here, playing a very different and subtle kind of chaos agent. She is introduced as Harry’s daughter, but is she really all that she says she is? Is she very much like Harry or completely different? Are they working together to accomplish a common goal, perhaps? Do they have different goals? You’ll spend the entire running time trying to get a handle on what exactly is going on there.
A Bigger Splash is a beautiful movie, both in sound and vision. The movie makes wonderful use of music, even securing the Rolling Stones song “Emotional Rescue” for one of the best scenes you’ll see all year. (Stick around through the credits to hear St. Vincent’s cover of the same song.) The island of Pantelleria looks like a bit of heaven on earth, but hidden under the surface are the island’s socioeconomic history, which is hinted at here. The movie specifically takes place in 2011, when the Mediterranean was beginning to see a large influx of refugees from North Africa. That is touched on in the film, but not overtly explained.
To be fair, nothing in this movie is overtly explained, and that is one of the joys of it. There are key moments in the film when what seems like an important scene ends, and we only see characters’ reactions to what happened in later scenes. Answers to some mysteries are never given, and the script doles out clues but no solutions. It’s the kind of movie you can unpack and discuss over and over again. It’s wonderful.
A Bigger Splash opens today in San Francisco, with a national rollout to come.
(This is where we normally put the trailer. I am not going to include the trailer, because boy does it ruin most of the movies surprise elements. I strongly recommend skipping it, and just seeing the movie.)