Monday, May 30, 2016

'A Bigger Splash' review

It's summer blockbuster season, which means that for the next four months, the multiplexes will be dominated by superheroes, big budgets, and wall-to-wall explosions. Thankfully, we'll get a break from the action with a few top-notch independent films. One of the hottest indies of the summer is sure to be Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash, which emerged from a slew of festivals with some really strong reviews. Led by a spectacular cast, this sexy and intense romance thriller is a well-crafted movie with a terrific sense of atmosphere. A Bigger Splash is compelling and mysterious, complementing the dazzling Italian landscapes with a seedy sense of drama. Unfortunately, the film doesn't make it all the way to the finish line, but thanks to to Guadagnino's great work and some stellar performances, A Bigger Splash is a memorable trip.

Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is one of the most famous rock stars on the planet and an icon of her generation. But after years in the business, she needs a break. Lane undergoes a serious vocal surgery and decides to spend a vacation on a secluded island in Italy with her partner, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Things are going swimmingly on the angelic beachfront location until Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) shows up. Harry is a former lover of Marianne and a friend of Paul, and at first, the old buddies are happy to see each other. But this time around, Harry has brought his young daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), along for the ride. And that complicates things. What started as a reunion between former friends and a vacation along the Italian coast turns into something else entirely, as true intentions are revealed and the deep anger erupts into violence, sexual tension, and twisted manipulation.

A Bigger Splash is light on plot, but heavy on intrigue. Each scene carries a sense of cryptic subtlety, leaving you to question the actions of the characters. They speak with behaviors more than words, allowing many things to be left up to your own interpretation. Clear answers are hard to find, and as the sexual undertones turn to violence, betrayal, and jealousy, it can be incredibly difficult to figure out who's on what side of the fence. Even as the film moves into its final act, things are even more unclear than ever. It's this sense of delicious ambiguity that allows this film to succeed so well at times. David Kajganich's screenplay doesn't craft easily defined characters- they're flawed, prone to making decisions that the audience can't quite understand.

With Guadagnino and Kajganich's focus on characters, it almost goes without saying that the performances are front and center in A Bigger Splash. Ralph Fiennes is the obvious standout as Harry Hawkes, chewing scenery and commanding every bit of the audience's attention. From the moment that Harry shows up, his nature is immediately clear- he's a fast-talking, high-energy charisma machine. And Fiennes has a blast with those elements of Harry, dancing across the screen with a smile across his face. However, Fiennes also has a true understanding of the Harry Hawkes that lies beneath the dynamic persona. He's able to turn on a dime from being mesmerizing and funny to being filled with sadness and pain, and his chemistry with the rest of the cast is fabulous. Fiennes gives one of the finest performances of the year so far.

Tilda Swinton is known for her chameleon-like abilities as an actress, and in A Bigger Splash, she's able to undergo a transformation of a different kind. Swinton's Lane has just had vocal surgery, and because of that, her performance is nearly silent. Swinton has admitted that this was a choice on her part, and it's one that works out terrifically. Utilizing only faint whispers and facial tics, you never really know what Marianne is thinking and that adds to the sense of ambiguity that flows through every scene in the film. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is equally brilliant and subdued as Paul, Lane's partner and Harry's friend. Schoenaerts' Paul seems lost in his own world, but there are some really great moments where he shines. And finally, Dakota Johnson is downright outstanding as Penelope, the young daughter of Harry. Johnson's seductive performance is absolutely captivating and shows off her skills as an actress in a unique new way.

This is only Luca Guadagnino's third film, but from this outing, it's abundantly clear that he is a director with a phenomenal cinematic eye and a spectacular control of the camera. Every scene in A Bigger Splash is enticing and tempting, using the lush locations and bright Italian sun to bring you closer to the action. The setting is practically a character in the film- it lives and breathes and matches up against the darkness of the actions. But ultimately, the film operates as a showcase for the four actors. With this in mind, Guadagnino is able to stage each scene to perfection, whether it's a tense poolside gathering, a flashy and funny dance sequence, or a gripping stand-off between Paul and Harry. For much of its runtime, A Bigger Splash has strong dramatic momentum, moving along very well as the interactions between the characters grow more and more dangerous.

Unfortunately, after the violent climax of A Bigger Splash, the film hits a wall. Things go from being sultry and intense to tedious and perplexing, compounded by some bizarre twists and a few scenes that overstay their welcome (a lengthy detour at the police station sticks out in my mind). After two acts that keep things interesting from a narrative and character perspective, A Bigger Splash's crime elements begin to feel out of place, and the film essentially limps to the finish line. Certain things in the third act work tremendously well, but it still operates as a jarring and not altogether successful tonal shift from the film's sensational start.

If A Bigger Splash had managed to stick this landing, this would be a near-masterpiece. And yet in its current state, it falls just short of greatness. But even a flat finish can't take away from the fact that this is a hypnotizing film, dominated by four masterclass performances that we could still be talking about during Oscar season. Swinton, Schoenaerts, Johnson, and especially Fiennes are all unbelievably good, creating memorable characters that have so much depth. Guadagnino's direction is enthralling, the script is fantastic, and the cinematography, music, and settings are all impeccable. As a fascinating and alluring beachfront tale of love, loss, family, and violence, A Bigger Splash hits the mark.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.8/10)

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with your take on the aftermath of the climax. I would've been fine with them completely axing the last 20 minutes or so.

    - Zach