A Bigger Splash (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): When their peaceful summer rest is disturbed

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My mind became more sensitized than usual during the screening of “A Bigger Splash”. While sensing the nervous undertone around its four main characters, I was more attentive to subtle nuances and small gestures glimpsed from them, and I was alternatively disturbed and amused as their situation seems to be on the verge of something bound to happen. I kept wondering with more interest and amusement; What exactly is going on between them? What exactly do they think or feel in this tricky circumstance in which they may have to be really discreet? And what will eventually happen to them?

The movie is about how the peaceful summer vacation of one couple happens to be disturbed by their two unexpected guests. After receiving a vocal cords surgery, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) has been taking an indefinite rest from her successful international pop singer career for recuperation, and the early scenes in the film show how she enjoys her private time with Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentarian who has been in the relationship with Marianne for several years. They are currently staying alone at a villa located in an Italian island called Pantelleria, and it looks like nothing can bother them as they go through their leisurely Mediterranean summer days together inside or outside the villa.

However, one guy calls during their another usual afternoon. He is Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), and he is about to arrive in the island along with Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson), a young, attractive girl who recently came into Harry’s life as a daughter from one of his countless relationships in the past. In fact, Harry was once Marianne’s lover besides being her music producer, and it is later revealed during one of the occasional flashback scenes in the film that Harry and Paul actually knew each other around the time when Harry and Marianne’s relationship was about to end.

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Harry’s sudden visit is awkward to both Marianne and Paul to say the least, but they accept his visit for old times’ sake, and they let him and his daughter stay in their villa. Harry can be annoying for his incessant talking and drinking, but he also can be pretty amusing for his exuberant carefree attitude, and Ralph Fiennes has a ball with his rambunctious character whenever he is required to act broadly and outrageously. While he has been mainly known for intense drama performances, Fiennes can be very funny as shown from his deliciously hilarious turn in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), and he is simply a riot to watch here as willingly hurling himself into juicy comic moments. At one point, Harry dances alone in front of others while the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” is being played in the background, and Fiennes ably embodies his character’s hedonistic passion while suggesting the growing mid-life desperation behind it.

It is apparent that Harry still has some feelings toward Marianne, and Marianne and Paul come to sense more of that as they spend more time with Harry and his daughter. While Harry never says that loud, Paul frequently feels provoked by Harry’s presence, and Matthias Schoenaerts, who is good at playing suffocated inner feelings as shown from his breakthrough turn in “Bullhead” (2011), subtly implies whatever is accumulating behind his character’s mild, patient demeanors.

Meanwhile, we also come to notice an elusive emotional undercurrent around Paul and Penelope. She gradually approaches to him for some reason, and then there comes a moment when she makes a blatant attempt in front of his eyes while they happen to be alone together during their hiking time. The movie does not show us what follows after that point, but this leads to a crucial moment when Penelope says one thing while possibly implying the other thing, and Dakota Johnson deftly balances this moment in her alluring performance, which reminds us that this promising young actress should escape from the Fifty Shades film series as soon as possible.

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In case of Marianne, she tries to handle the situation sensibly while speaking as little as possible because of her current medical condition, but her matters of heart turn out to be more difficult and perplexing than she thought. Tilda Swinton, who previously collaborated with the director Luca Guadagnino in “I Am Love” (2009), is captivating to watch in her another fascinating performance, and the unadorned directness of her wordless acting takes me back to my brief time with late Roger Ebert. While he could not speak due to his illness, he always could express volumes through his gestures and facial expressions, and I observed similar things from Swinton here in this film. She does not speak much during several dramatic key points, but her uncanny beautiful face always functions as a window to Marianne’s thoughts and feelings, and she also looks magnificent when her character dresses herself more gorgeously later in the story.

The movie is loosely based on 1969 Italian-French film “La Piscine”, which was remade into François Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” (2003). I do not know how much David Kajganich’s screenplay is different from the 1969 film or the 2003 film, but I can tell you that “A Bigger Splash” can stand alone as an individual work with its own style and mood. The cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who incidentally worked in “Swimming Pool”, imbues the movie with bright summer atmosphere, and his camera often impressively captures intimate close-up shots of the main characters while also emphasizing the natural beauty of outdoor locations. The soundtrack ranging from Giuseppe Verdi to Harry Nilsson is an effective accompaniment to the unpredictable emotional narrative of the film, and it is no wonder that the movie received the Soundtrack Stars Award at the Venice International Film Festival in last year.

While it is not without weak points (a part involved with refugees does not work as well as intended, for example), “A Bigger Splash” is compelling to watch when it is rolling its main characters around its setting, and I enjoyed the engaging quartet performance from its four talented performers. To be frank with you, I would have no problem with spending more time with their performances, but, alas, every good fun always comes to end, you know.

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