In the long and varied history of Italian cinema there's a tradition of brash, effusive films ranging from Federico Fellini's masterworks (La Dolce Vita) to Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). A new generation of Italian directors that includes Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) and Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) updates that approach with an emphasis on real human emotion — not the easy-to-digest kind often served up by Hollywood — and a willingness to create characters whose flaws and frailties are left intact.
It's hard to imagine a more fitting example of all those cinematic qualities than Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash. Loosely based on French filmmaker Jacques Deray's 1969 drama La Piscine (a film that Guadagnino claims not to admire), the film takes its name and further inspiration from David Hockney's iconic pop-art painting.
A Bigger Splash delves into jealousies and desires among four beautiful but troubled artist types in retreat on a remote island in the Mediterranean. All spend their time trying to seduce one another and the film has a similar effect on viewers — it's hard not to be drawn into this exotic and privileged world, though few seem truly happy in it. It all feels a bit like a guilty pleasure.
Tilda Swinton stars as Marianne Lane, a legendary rock musician who comes across as a female variation of David Bowie. She and her partner, cinematographer Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), are vacationing on the Italian Island of Pantelleria as she recovers from career-threatening vocal-cord surgery and is largely unable to speak. Paul has just completed rehab and has other troubles that gradually emerge. Their quiet time together is interrupted by a surprise visit from Marianne's boisterous ex-boyfriend/ex-producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who also is an old friend of Paul's and clearly wants to win Marianne back. Harry brings a beautiful and very young woman named Penelope (Dakota Johnson) whom he has just discovered is his daughter.
The English language A Bigger Splash begins as a character study and relationship drama but evolves into an erotic thriller. Danger seems to lurk around every corner, not only in the tensions between lovers and friends but also from the sheer drop-offs on the winding mountain roads, the large snakes that find their way onto the property and — most troublingly, given today's headlines and the passions they inflame — refugees fleeing oppression in the Arab world who use the island as a way station while traveling to the European mainland.
The film marks the fourth collaboration between Guadagnino and Swinton, and reportedly it was her idea to make her character virtually mute. The result is a film that's far quieter and more engrossing than might have been possible with a dialogue-heavy screenplay. There's an appealing messiness to the way A Bigger Splash tells its story, leaving key elements partially articulated or completely unsaid and bringing the entire film closer to the way people experience life.
Pantelleria serves as the film's fifth primary character and seems poised to engulf all who tread its imposingly rocky terrain. A volcanic island off the coast of Sicily that's geographically closer to the African nation of Tunisia, it's a bridge between Arab and European worlds. In A Bigger Splash, the island also becomes a powerful symbol for what can happen when disparate worlds collide.