A BIGGER SPLASH
(2016, Luca Guadagnino)
[5 out of 5 stars]
A string of wordless scenes open the movie. Marianne (Tilda Swinton) walks out into a rowdy stadium in glitter-glam rockstar getup. It then cuts to a scene more serene than the last. Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) is Marianne's beau. They spend their days on an island in Italy sunbathing and swimming.
Two people arrive to disturb their quiet idyll, literally descending above them by plane, with its shadow speeding past as they lay on the beach. Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrive with his daughter (Dakota Johnson) whom he's just recently met (she's the result of a past fling but a DNA test is yet to be performed). They have a complicated history revealed through flashbacks and conversations. The past sneaks up to spoil the paradise, like an undesirable snake slithering into the garden.
Marianne has just had surgery and cannot speak. This was Tilda Swinton's idea as told by the director who came for a Q&A after the film. Swinton's character was meant to be an actress but she had no desire to play one. Her decision to make her voiceless was intuitive. Marianne's mode of expression is now limited to gestures along with the occasional whisper. The muting of a rockstar exposes a certain truth about that character.
There is a newfound sense of calm in her life with Paul. She clearly needed the break from her fast life as a musician but Harry has come to drag her back - to that kind of lifestyle and also back to him. By making her voiceless, it becomes difficult to articulate her desires. It also, for obvious reasons, makes her quiet and pensive (though her brashness occasionally comes out in hushed howls). Her introspective side is turned into a physical manifestation, a transformation.
This is why Tilda Swinton is such a talent. Not merely accepting characters to play but having the guts to interrogate them. She possesses the rare ability to understand people deeply enough that when inauthenticities are detected in the writing it can be led to the truth through her interpretation of the character. The writing isn't bad, in fact it's very good, but steered to interesting waters by Swinton.
Swinton and Guadagnino's creative partnership is symbiotic and fertile. Swinton embodies a sense of worldly humanity but delivered with the presence of a celestial being. She looks and acts like a goddess sent to us from above to be more human than human.
Guadagnino's filmmaking complements this dichotomy because his films are about the earthly pleasures of life. They activate the pleasure center of your brain through beautiful compositions and mise-en-scene. The seductive scenery provides the backdrop for the erotic drama unfolding before us. Everyone and everything is painfully beautiful. "I fall in love with every pretty thing", says Penelope. The same could be said of the director.
Guadagnino has full command of his vision. The camerawork is fascinating. Scenes are usually long and quiet with only the water and the wind to break the silence. At certain moments - whether to express the frustrations of a character or reveal a revelation - the camera would jolt back to life like it is waking up from its siesta. There would be rapid close-ups or it would jitter, like a tic. It's the kind of camerawork you see in melodramas as a grand gesture of emotion but it is used sparingly here.
Although there's a lot of ideas to unpack, you'd much rather just enjoy the beauty of the film without having to think about it. Hedonism through to intellectualism by way of aestheticism. It offers so much pleasure through its sensual images that it feels futile to analyse it. At the same time, there's plenty of fodder for complex sociopolitical thought (politics of desire, relationship miscommunication, hedonism) that you feel an urge to deconstruct everything.
It is like trying to explain an orgasm to someone who has never had one. You'd much rather just show them, so they see it for themselves. That's my review in a nutshell: see it for yourself.