This Movie's Proof That, Even Without A Voice, Tilda Swinton Will Make You Feel All The Things
In A Bigger Splash, a famous musician has her fabulous vacation ruined — or maybe improved — by unexpected visitors.
Luca Guadagnino makes movies that feel like they're on ecstasy. They have a stick-your-head-in-a-speaker-and-insist-you-can-feel-the-music buzz to them, sensory details cranked up until they all but leap off the screen. When a character casually tosses the contents of his pockets on a chair before going for a swim, the action's captured in a jittery burst of snap zooms — WALLET! PHONE! — and the moment might be important, or it might just be emphasis for emphasis's sake. The camera's attention catches the sun-bronzed curve of a neck or the quivering blue of a swimming pool or the plunge of a spoon into still-warm ricotta like it's documenting a world so entrancingly alive that it hardly knows what to focus on.
And then it focuses on Tilda Swinton, and there's no doubt at all. Guadagnino is an unmatched adherent of Swinton's long-limbed, extraterrestrial looks and her incredible emotional translucence, relying on her to transmit the overflowing inner lives of characters who don't or can't always talk about what they're going through. In the director's voluptuous last film, 2009's I Am Love, Swinton played the buttoned-down matriarch of a wealthy Milanese family. She's lured out of her gorgeous gilded cage of a life (and her luxe Raf Simons wardrobe) by her son's chef friend Antonio, who awakens her with a dish of perfectly cooked prawns at his restaurant, sensualist recognizing sensualist in a way no societal restrictions can hold back. In Guadagnino's equally sultry but much more disorderly latest, A Bigger Splash, Swinton plays a very different sort of aristocrat, a rock star named Marianne Lane who has none of the same issues with repression, but who has also found herself muted.
Marianne's in recovery from vocal cord surgery and has retreated to an island off the coast of Italy with her boyfriend and babysitter Paul, a documentarian played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who's very good at playing these sorts of sad-eyed sides of meat. But their Edenic idyll of sunbathing and sex in a borrowed villa gets interrupted by unexpected guests. Harry (Ralph Fiennes, fantastically free and frequently naked), Marianne's record producer ex and a class 5 tornado of a human being, blows into town with Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the daughter he only recently learned he had, and invites himself to stay. Harry's terrific fun, the life of the party, and if there isn't a party, he'll start one — loading the fridge with booze, flirting with everyone, and wriggling to the Rolling Stones with uninhibited, joyous rhythmlessness.
But Harry's also trouble — trouble as a general practice and with specific intent, poking at Marianne's relationship with Paul like someone testing to see if a piece of fruit is overripe. Once upon a time, he handed Marianne off to Paul, unable to deal with the commitment, but he's back and ready to, in his mind, rescue her from her younger, sober, doting Paul, who he dismisses as a "square." "He's put a bell on you," he sniffs to Marianne. Harry's daughter, a mercurial sex kitten in Doc Martens who watches the rest of them, especially Paul, with a knowing gaze, makes the same dig into Marianne when no one else is around. "You're pretty domesticated for a rock star," she drawls. Marianne can only whisper back, "Have I done something to upset you?"
A Bigger Splash is, eventually, a thriller, and maybe an escalation can be detected amid the hedonistic overload, the promise that a showdown or an explosion of some sort is inevitable. But the sexual tension is so much more entrancing than the dramatic kind, especially when it's linked with such charged power dynamics, especially when the climax is easy to see coming. Paul knows he's not Marianne's equal — he's an observer rather than a doer, and he's been taking maybe a little too much enjoyment in having his lover depend on him. And Marianne exudes rueful affection and pleasure when she's around Harry's exuberant energy, and also, maybe, misses the large living he represents. But we get plenty of signs that she's also weary, putting on smiles for the fans that recognize her and revealing a pained expression as soon as she's out of sight. At an outdoor restaurant set back in the hills, Harry uses Marianne's fame to get them a table, and her reluctant embarrassment doesn't need to be spoken to be felt.
In Marianne, Swinton presents us with a woman being faced with the fact that she might not be able to return to her career as it was, and that she might not be sorry. A Bigger Splash's occasional flashbacks to these characters' hard-living pasts are the least necessary part of the movie, not just because they look like unconvincing re-enactments, but because they make explicit what's already clear. Even when she's been rendered speechless and dressed down, Marianne feels outsized, standing between two men who are each sure they're the one who can give her what she needs. The movie's lustiness is heady, but it also leaves you as ready for a break at the end as its famous musician seems to be. Rock 'n' roll may be forever, but as lifestyle choice, it can get old.