In A Bigger Splash, Tilda Swinton delivers a riveting performance despite the fact that she doesn’t get much to say. Her character, Marianne Lane, has just had throat surgery and must, by medical decree, not speak.
To the viewer, it might not register on the first glimpse of Marianne lounging nude by a villa pool, but she’s an arena-filling rock star, world adored and aging gracefully — one dash Marianne Faithful, one part Patti Smith, and a big splash of David Bowie. It’s uncanny too as Swinton, with her ageless elven features, may be the most natural incarnate of the late, beloved rocker.
Accompanying Marianne on her retreat is her younger, doting lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, the brooding Belgian actor in Far From the Madding Crowd and The Danish Girl), who’s more than just a boy toy and man servant. He makes documentary films, which is how the two met. He’s also a recovering alcoholic struggling with addiction. Also dropping by unexpectedly, because these things just happen on remote locations in the middle of the Mediterranean, is Marianne’s ex-lover and producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) with a nubile young blonde named Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow who claims to be the daughter Harry didn’t know he had. She’s the fly in the ointment while Harry’s the life of the party and Paul remains passively discontent while Marianne remains at the center, drinking in the healing merriment.
Luca Guadagnino, who helmed I Am Love in 2009 with Swinton as a well-off married woman having an affair with her cook and stirred up plenty of sensual evocations in that film, runs the same playbook in A Bigger Splash, though the scrumptious succulence of food is dialed back in favor of the power of soul-affirming rock. In small micro-glimpses into the past we see Marianne prepping for an arena show looking Ziggy-like androgynous and later in a dark subterranean club, when she appears to be something of an amalgam of Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde. We never really hear Marianne sing, but we do see Harry in the recording booth and Paul filming Harry prattling on about his involvement cutting the Rolling Stones later albums (thus the intro to Marianne). There’s plenty of drugs and sex from those past decades that get peppered into the now as the four dine on gloriously prepared fish, while Harry Nilsson’s manic classic “Jump into the Fire” stokes the tension, both sexual and otherwise. Eventually, the tenor of A Bigger Splash turns dark. Early on Harry mentions the ouster of Brian Jones from the Stones. It turns out to be a sharply prophetic barb in hauntingly tangential ways.
Everything about A Bigger Splash — the title taken from a David Hockney painting — is juicy and succulent and over-ripe. It’s an embarrassment of riches that gets close to the point of going over the edge, but the cast, fortunately, rein it all back in.
Swinton with her glowing, expressive face holds it together and is able to cast anger, joy, and compassion with an apt contort. When she needs her words, it’s a hoarse few words to hang on. Fiennes on the other hand, shows a looser, wilder side than we’ve ever seen before. Not the usual tremulous, demurring Brit, but a hedonistic tour de force who has seen the world and comes with complex underpinnings that could fill a B-52’s cargo hold. Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don) gets a do-over of sorts from the insipid sex thriller Fifty Shades of Grey. She’s more prop than part in A Bigger Splash, but she fills the role with daring come-hither that works even if the transitions to it are a bit of a lurch.
The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, who’s crisp acuteness underscored I Am Love and Clouds of Sils Maria, gets to spread his wings even more than in his past efforts. The shots tailing Paul’s jalopy of a jeep along a mountainside goat path or the atmospheric pull out from the swimming pool during a pivotal scene are beguiling and breathtaking in ways you won’t see from Hollywood this summer.