Luca Guadagnino’s Spellbinding Erotic Drama

The hedonistic stories of old-school rock-stars is the stuff of legends. Black Sabbath reportedly had a budget of $75,000 just for cocaine, The Stooges painted their Detroit squat with the blood that poured from their track marks, and so on. Of course, there’s more than just drugs to these misadventures but also sex and alcohol. Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” is about that rock-star hedonism. The characters of the film have been shaped by their sexual desire as well as drug and alcohol abuse, and what we see in the film are their attempts to break away with that lifestyle and come clean. Quitting isn’t easy, however, and so we also see the consequences—which are both physical and moral—of their regression.

The story—made by Alain Page and penned by David Kajganich—is about Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) a rock-star living out in the secluded mountains of Italy with her long-time boyfriend Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). Lane is recovering from a throat injury resulting from her singing. She’s unable to speak and so she and Smedt spend their days in idyllic peace. That peace is shattered when Lane’s old producer, Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), shows up one day with a “surprise;” a daughter who he only just discovered he had.

Her name is Penelope (Dakota Johnson), and her behavior is unsettling. She makes petty comments towards Lane in an attempt to hurt her and openly flirts with Smedt. It’s not just Penelope that threatens peace but also Hawkes. Whereas his daughter is more subdued in her attitude, Hawkes is a fireball. He’s always shown to either be drunk or high on cocaine. Similarly to Penelope flirting with Smedt, Hawkes also comes onto Lane, and here is where the dramatic twist of the story comes into play: Hawkes and Lane used to be long-time lovers, and Hawkes trip to Italy as an old friend is a guise for his attempt to swoon Lane. Hawkes resurgence in Lane and Smedt’s life recalls old wounds, and a lifestyle that Lane and Smedt have put behind them.

“A Bigger Splash” is one of the best films I’ve seen all year due to just how great everything about it is. Yorick Le Saux serves as the film’s cinematographer and with his camera, he brings out the film’s poetic beauty. Wide shots in combination with saturated colors give the island’s deep-green plant-life and dark waters a nice pop, perhaps recalling the painting of the same title for which the film derives its name. “A Bigger Splash” is marketed as an erotic film, and there are a number of scenes devoted to displays of intercourse; for these scenes, Saux brings the camera closer to his subjects, bringing us their intimate, subtle reactions to pleasure.

Fiennes as Hawkes delivers the finest male performance I’ve seen all year. His acting brings back the eccentricity and sophistication of the last role I saw him in; Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Yet, his character here calls for a much louder personality and Fiennes delivers in the boldness of his acting. One scene in particular has him dancing to the Rolling Stones, and the characters can’t help but get sucked into the groove that Fiennes gives his character. That vacuum effect extends to the audience, leading me to praise Fiennes so.

Despite having few lines due to her character’s throat injury, Swinton is no slouch as Lane. Yes, Swinton is beautiful, but she’s much more than an abject of physical desire in this film. Without her voice, Swinton does deliver a more subdued performance than her colleagues but in her physical reactions she is able to bring as much energy as Fiennes does with his brashness. With what few gestures Swinton’s character has to use—scoffs, eye-rolls, and hand movement are a few of her tools—she accomplishes expressing her feelings in magnitudes; when she’s severely angered and annoyed at Hawkes for coming on to her, Swinton is able to show us how serious her character is with such minimal movement. In one scene involving a dialogue on suicide, Gudagino uses just Swinton’s foot, a glass cup, eye movement, and the spacing of the camera in order to convey that someone is uncomfortable, ingeniously leading us to a powerful character revelation.

Earlier, I mentioned how “The Bigger Splash” is about battles with various desires, and now I want to discuss specifically how the film shows that. Take for example, Hawkes who seems too caught up in the past. The film’s present narrative is interspersed with flashbacks that detail character backgrounds and relationships. It is through these scenes that we understand how Hawkes hasn’t changed. As a bigshot producer, Hawkes had the power to indulge himself in anything but more so anyone—one character remarks how Hawkes is willing to sleep with anything. That sexual desire is what threatens to destroy the various relationships presented in the film. Here, I’d like to note a distinction between enjoying Fiennes’ acting and finding his character likeable.

Aside from Lane, none of the characters of the film are likeable due to their moral flaws, but I don’t find that to be a problem. Hawkes in particular is aggressively forward with his wants, thus making him selfish; his character shows little qualms for the consequences of his actions, and what I’m praising Fiennes for is the ability to bring out those characteristics and not the actions of his character.

In continuing to discuss about battles with desire, there’s also Lane’s boyfriend Smedt. Early on, we learn Smedt was an alcoholic which led to a near-death experience. He’s now been clean for a year, but the arrival of Hawkes causes some complications. Namely, Hawkes’ excessive consumption of alcohol which serves as a constant reminder to Smedt of his own addiction. Then, there’s also Penelope who tempts Smedt to sleep with her. Like Hawkes’ own sexual wants, the dynamic between Penelope and Smedt also threaten the relationships between everyone. Smedt may indulge in the pleasures of the flesh but to do so would be an obvious immoral act towards Lane who he’s been with for six years.

In my review for “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” I discussed how the secrets in that film built up tension that led to the film’s dramatic climax. The battles with desire in “A Bigger Splash” also work in this same vein. The tension between everyone—especially, the sexual tension—leads to film’s anguishing third act. Guadagnino is so careful in his pacing and detailing for this last part of the film; it’s the work of a master who understands how to use a strong script to draw in the audience and keep them enticed.

“A Bigger Splash” is one of the best films of 2016.  In exploring the different psychology of the characters through their desires, Guadagnino has created a beautifully wrenching drama. The last moments of the film are particularly gripping and leave me excited for Guadagnino’s next work.

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