A Bigger Splash wades deeper in an often shallow genre

Watch enough movies and eventually you’ll fall prey to the misleading pressures of expectations. It often feels like we are served up six or seven cookie cutter movie archetypes each summer. Today we get the superhero flick, the over-the-hill action star punching his way though a last hurrah (or trilogy of hurrahs), some variation of en vogue horror genre cliches, and maybe a holiday themed movie. These flavors rotate through the cinematic menu every few years until a genre reaches critical mass and collapses in on itself (like the death of the rom com in the early aughts or its sibling the bromance, which is awesomely eulogized here by Hadley Freeman for The Guardian). Once enough films cozy into a category it’s easy to begin to see patterns, not all of which are flattering.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a string of films featuring a slew of slightly-past-middle-aged actors taking on roles exploring into the difficulties of passing through that 50-65 year old age range. For better or worse, it is in this greater context which I approached A Bigger Splash. Frequent Luca Guadagnino collaborator Tilda Swinton stars as Marianne Lane, an ultra-famous music star recovering from a recent throat surgery which left her unable to speak in more than a whisper. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Marianne’s doting lover who faithfully delivers her daily medicines and soothing teas at their beachside getaway. The opening frames of the film show a sequined and glittering Marianne in flashback as she steps on stage in a massive arena packed with cheering fans. We briskly cut to the present with Paul and a post-op Marianne each laying naked beside a pool in their island retreat in Pantelleria, Italy. With no dialogue to guide (or obstruct) us, we follow the couple as they stake out a spot on a warm beach and affectionately cover each other in mud before dozing under the sun. Everything about these opening frames shows a sort of comfort and staidness which is abruptly washed away by the interruption of Marianne’s former partner Harry who also happens to be Paul’s former friend. Harry’s eccentric young daughter Penelope accompanies her father, adding another jarring personality to the mix.

Despite their best efforts, Harry manages to wedge himself into the lives of Marianne and Paul.  The refuge that Paul and Marianne had found is quickly broken down by Harry’s energetic yet intrusive nature [1]. Harry’s presence is chaotic in early party scenes with French-Wave-inspired jump cuts which imbue a freneticism to the experience (and match the audience’s experience with that of the characters). Throughout the film, editor Walter Fasano and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux visually show us the changing dynamics in our newly formed foursome. The initial meeting of the group establishes visual frameworks early. Here the film uses one of its few point-of-view shots allowing us to take on Paul’s perspective as he stares at Harry through polarized lenses which shift the image into a blue-grayscale. Paul literally puts a barrier between himself and Harry until the boundary is promptly dissolved by Marianne removing the glasses. For the remainder of the film Paul tries to pull away from Harry as Marianne remains ambivalent at times.

While the cinematography and editing carry an uncharacteristically heavy load, the film also manages to wield Marianne’s dialogue, or lack thereof, as a significant plot developer. Early in the film Paul tells Harry and Penelope that Marianne cannot speak as she is recovering from her surgery. The more she speaks the longer it will take her voice to recover and the longer her career will be on hold. Soon, the audience learns that Marianne speaks in whispers to Paul but the pair hide this from their unwanted guests. As the film progresses and Harry and Penelope insinuate themselves into their lives Marianne speaks more and more until finally she screams in an emotional climax. What makes this development even more interesting for Marianne’s character is that Tilda Swinton developed the idea for Marianne’s mutism herself. After reading the script she apparently found it to be too dialogue laden and suggested the change which Guadagnino incorporated.

Guadagnino and Swinton have collaborated several times in the past which likely contributes to the dynamic that brings out these creative choices. With excellent performances by everyone involved, both in front of and behind the camera.  A Bigger Splash reminds us to expect more from our dramas and that we should ourselves leave our expectations at the door. Before seeing this film I expected something along the lines of Danny Collins, Ricki and the Flash, or (dare I say) A Walk in the Woods. Instead Guadagnino delivers a thought-provoking drama more akin to Her or Inside Llewyn Davis with characters damned with an inability to forget the past. A Bigger Splash may not be perfect (the tonal shifts and plot unraveling at the end do more to obfuscate than provide a stuck-landing) but at least it goes for it and tells a story about imperfect but real characters who, despite their cliches and familiarity, showcase human emotions that deserve exploring.

Bigger Splash pair 2

Rating: 8/10

[1] This intrusiveness in mirrored in multiple ways during the film including the group’s festive attitude during a religious parade as well as an underlying refugee crisis in which migrants literally disrupt the lives of the natives. This latter plot is eventually folded into the plot of our characters directly which seems a bit shoehorned but also serves to highlight the changes in the characters themselves.

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