“A Bigger Splash” is a triumph of flavor.
Imagine a simple but always tasty dish – an omelette, say. And then imagine what a master chef and a creative sous chef might be able to do with it.
The film is loosely based on Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine” (“The Swimming Pool”), a 1969 film starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin.
So was the 2003 Francis Ozon film “Swimming Pool,” which starred Charlotte Rampling and a disruptively sensual Ludivine Seigner.
What is quite different about “A Bigger Splash” are all those delicious new Italian flavorings added to the basic French dish of languid vacation eroticism around a sun-dappled pool.
What it has all been brilliantly changed to is the story of a rock star recovering from throat surgery on a small island off the coast of Sicily who is visited by her manic ex-husband Harry and his recently discovered and nubile daughter.
Up to now, everything has been perfect for the rock star who desperately needs to rest and get her much-worshipped voice back. Luxuriant and erotic days of swimming, nude sun-bathing and love-making have been perfect for a rock star told not to use her voice.
But then Harry – who is her former record producer as well – says he’ll be on the island momentarily with a daughter he’s only recently discovered he had.
The languorous and sensual life of vacationing rock star Marianne thereby explodes.
Harry seems to need every minute of life to be supercharged with something – hilarious experiences, dramatic revelations, his tales of producing Rolling Stones records, delicious food, visitation by interesting people on the island he has told to drop by.
To steal a phrase that seems to have been coined by William Phillips to describe his Partisan Review co-editor Philip Rahv, Harry is a “manic impressive.” He’s a living, breathing rock album, just looking for a speaker and an on switch.
He’s also a great gift to an actor who seems to have been doing some of the best work of his life in the past few years, Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”).
Fiennes grabs Harry with both hands and takes over the movie. He is so obnoxious that you want him gone, at first, after he’s barely been onscreen for five minutes.
But all of the people we’re watching have long, rich histories with this man and they tolerate Harry as a necessary part of their lives. He’s family, Lord help them all. He’s the one who introduced them. And, it turns out, there was once a suicide attempt among them. Harry’s indefatigable energy and comic narcissism have their emotional uses. It’s not for nothing that his favorite vinyl LP among those he finds in this rented villa is the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.”
Nevertheless, when, finally, the rock star’s life partner, the documentarian, blurts out to Harry “Just STOP TALKING!” you want to applaud.
But it’s a great performance by Fiennes, whose subtlety is still to come. It has to be. Very dramatic things are yet to happen.
But it is, as I said, the flavorings that are the making of this.
It was apparently Tilda Swinton, starring as Marianne, who was responsible for Marianne becoming a rock star in vocal distress in the plot – one who, therefore, must be silent and sedate whenever possible.
When an actress is as brilliant as Swinton, that’s a very clever choice. When, in flashback, she’s all painted up before going on stage, she looks a little Bowiesque but even then, you never see her perform. You only hear her band thunderously playing her on and see the packed, screaming stadium full of fans ready to see her work.
Everything radiates around Harry and Marianne. It’s their history together that carries the emotional weight of this sun-drenched, disrupted life of flesh and food and merry talk.
Matthias Schoenaerts plays Marianne’s placid photographer husband. Dakota Johnson plays Harry’s daughter, a clear-cut threat of oncoming plot sex, if ever there was one.
Sex does, indeed, happen, which complicates things in ways we didn’t imagine.
The flavoring that is, I think, the making of “A Bigger Splash” is what filmmaker Luca Guadagnino brings to it. Guadagnino is a self-declared sworn guardian of classic Italian cinema. What was extraordinary about his film “I Am Love” is how much of it burst with vibrations from previous Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti movies along with Alfred Hitchcock, too.
The sun-drenched decadent eroticism in “A Bigger Splash” is redolent, again, of Antonioni, this time the master’s “L’Avventura.” But the director also wants those who can to remember Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” too.
And the beauty of it all is that you don’t have to know an Antonioni film from a bad ABC sitcom to appreciate that the director is giving you emotions in the sun influenced by some of the greatest figures in film history. You can see the results of that stylishness in the film.
And all so he can give us a great 21st century ending, with all the twisted postmodern irony anyone could want.
By the time Fiennes, Swinton and Guadagnino are finished doing their work, a simple dish has become a bit of an improvised clean-out-the-fridge feast.
3.5 stars (Out of four)
Title: “A Bigger Splash”
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenarts, Dakota Johnson
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Running time: 125 minutes
Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, language, brief drug use.
The Lowdown: Rock star recuperates from surgery in Italy with husband and ex-husband.