A Bigger Splash -What’s below the surface can remain buried. (Film review)

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A Bigger Splash

The nymphete swanning about her mother or father’s house in bikinis is a creature that never existed except in the minds of unpleasant males who chose to interpret a person before them in the most superficial manner. No teen girl, no matter how she pretends at social courage is confidently seducing much older males with cocky assurance. The teen girl is plagued with a self-doubt only maturity will erase in precisely the same manner the teen boy is experiencing life. Despite (and because of) Nabokov’s beautiful writing, the nymphete is a product of the gaze, rather than a genuine human experience, and she’s a boring if not disturbing stereotype for thinking females to have to deal with.

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Which brings me to the problem of partial development in A Bigger Splash. Luca Guadagnino is no light weight film maker, having collaborated with Tilda Swinton in many of his films, most notably the beautiful I am Love (2010), but he consistently withdraws from the revolutionary statements that bubble beneath the surfaces he creates. A Bigger Splash enthusiastically draws inspiration from La Piscine (1969) the Jacques Deray film, but travels in the wrong direction from this source material. The nymphete at the pool edge in La Piscene is a youthful Jane Birkin who flits about wide-eyed and rather stupid, eventually taken advantage of as an act of revenge against her father. Dakota Johnson is a thrilling advancement on this image, but Guaragnino embitters her into a femme fatale type in command of the way she is manipulating all the adults around her. It’s a shame, because a deconstruction of the nymphete would have been welcome, yet  A Bigger Splash constructs itself around a promise to deliver it frustratingly can’t realise. Instead we’re left with a terrific performance from Johnson of a silly character whose behaviours are so impossible to believe we cling to the promise of depth to get ourselves through her characters peculiar development.

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This problem occurs around each of the four protagonists. Guaragnino may seem lost in his own material, but he can draw wonderful performances from his great cast and the real pleasure of A Bigger Splash is to be found in the combination of these quality performances and the promise of four interesting character studies. This obstacle becomes stark when A Bigger Splash is posited against its source material which exerts the wrong influence over the more contemporary film. La Piscine successfully draws A Bigger Splash into a French/Italian new age aesthetic, but the revolutionary nature of new wave content is never realised in the newer film. It’s frustrating because the look and feel of the film set the viewer up for a promising experience as Guaragnino draws the regular cinema watcher in with a flourish that promises what he is unable to deliver with confidence.

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Much of this aesthetic feel is the work of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who takes Guaragnino’s camera angles and inserts his own commentary softening the directors gaze. A Bigger Splash is primarily about the unfettered appetites of wealth and stardom but the emphasis on the body with only flashbacks indicating the mania of crowd driven obsessions changes the direction of the fans gaze. The four bodies, male and female are offered to the viewer via direct angles unencumbered by self-consciousness, or rather offered with a boldness those successfully accustomed to perpetual physical scrutiny can enjoy. Le Saux’s camera peeks at these folk from every angle and they don’t seem to care. This so-called freedom, as exemplified in the character Harry (Ralph Fiennes) is posited against the traditional values of warmth, security and privacy called forth in the faithful relationship between Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthais Schoenaerts). It is this security that is supposedly rocked by the arrival of the sexually precocious father and daughter team.

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Fandom also raises its head in the character of the local constabulary (Corrado Guzzanti) whose choice between loyalty to his job and his passion for his musical idol develop into a genuine question about the police and their role as interpreter of law. A Bigger Splash is centered around a pool, an image of both reflection and strange passions below the surface but never are these themes better approached than with the sycophantic policeman teetering on the precipice of his approach to the crime he investigates. The imposition of a police investigation that severs the film in half imposes a reality on the group of four that was absent when emotional indulgences and discombobulating group dynamics were allowed to reign free. Nothing matters but how they feel, yet those unexamined feelings take the place of action in the pool side indulgence of a super rich lifestyle. When the crime is blamed on poor immigrants, Guaradagnino reveals the way the very poor are used to serve the very rich. Immediately Marianne and Paul are free to return to their feelings, and faux self-examination that exists primarily as a facade against boredom.

A Bigger Splash is another one of those films that suggests its own failure by not living up to its own ambitions. There is plenty to enjoy, particularly the fine performances of Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton (who plays a virtually mute rock star – interesting right?) and the film contains enough fertile soil to sow the seeds of repeat watching. There are layers to explore but they feel lost under a problematic subtlety that refuses transparency. Still, an interesting watch.

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