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Bigger Splash, A (2016)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"They're Gonna Need A Bigger Skimmer"
2 stars

Although the temptation when it comes to doing remakes of films is to go after well-known and much-beloved titles—an insane idea since, with the very occasional exceptions, the newcomers generally haven’t a chance when compared to the originals—it is oftentimes a better idea, at least from an artistic standpoint, to redo more obscure films that had intriguing ideas but which just didn’t quite come off in terms of execution the first time around. In that sense, Jacques Deray’s 1969 film “La Piscine” would seem like a film ripe for a revival—an erotic drama involving infidelity, betrayal, murder and impossibly gorgeous people lolling and gagging around an even more impossibly gorgeous St. Tropez setting, the story never quite caught fire and if it is remembered today at all, it is because of the smoldering sensuality of co-stars Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin than for anything regarding the story or the filmmaking. In reviving that film for his latest work, “A Bigger Splash,” controversial Italian director Luca Gudaginino has fleshed out the original narrative and new and occasionally intriguing ways but fails in the end to do much more with the story than Deray did all those years ago and further hampers his efforts with some questionable stylistic decisions and a couple of performances that will no doubt annoy as many viewers as they entertain.

Tilda Swinton stars as Marianne Lane, a legendary rock star in the manner of David Bowie who has been sidelined after undergoing surgery in the hopes of healing her blown-out vocal chords. Now she is convalescing in an isolated mansion on Pantelleria—a lovely island located between Italy and Tunisia that should see its tourism skyrocket if this film catches on—with her lover of six years, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker who is himself still healing following a stint in rehab for a long-standing drinking problem that led in part to a failed suicide attempt. By themselves, save for a housekeeper, and with Marianne forced to be silent, save for the occasional whisper, for several weeks lest she lose her singing voice for good, they are perfectly content to lay in the sun by their shimmering swimming pool and do absolutely nothing in the most relaxing manner imaginable. That perfect calm is soon shattered with a phone call announcing the arrival of old friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a motor-mouthed record producer who loves to take over any room he enters with his outgoing manner and endless line of patter about his past work with the Rolling Stones and his contributions to the musical classic that was “Voodoo Lounge.” Calling to inform them of his arrival literally as his plane in landing, Harry promises “a surprise” and that turns out to be Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who turns out to be the daughter whose existence he has only known about for a year or so.

As we quickly figure out, there is a lot more going on here than just a case of an obnoxious freeloader busting in on someone else’s vacation. Years earlier, Harry and Marianne were lovers as well as artistic collaborators and when their relationship was coming to an end, it was he who introduced his own friend Paul to her. He has clearly begun to regret the breakup and from the moment he arrives, he all but announces his plan to reclaim Marianne for himself and begins his attempts to win her back by constantly reminding her of the good old hedonistic days while making sure that there is now plenty of booze around in the hopes of causing Paul to succumb to his own past temptations. It even appears that Harry has brought Penelope along specifically to help him in this task by apparently coaching her to ask Paul questions about his personal demons and by serving as an implied consolation prize if he succeeds in winning away Marianne. Marianne catches on almost immediately, though her voiceless objections tend to get lost in the shuffle, and while she loves Paul, she cannot deny that there is still something between them.

For his part, Paul grows more and more frustrated as this plays out before him and when Marianne and Harry go out into town for a long afternoon of “shopping,” he winds up taking a hike with Penelope that, perhaps inevitably, turns into something else. As for Penelope, who is, with the exception of the nubile daughter of an old friend of Harry’s that he immediately puts the moves on after inviting her and her mother over, the only young person around, she is dealing with both the boredom and annoyance of having to sit around and listen to people reminisce about things that happened long before she was born and the fact that she is not quite sure if she is actually Harry’s daughter or not—there is the suggestion that something has occurred that makes the answer to that question especially compelling. With all of this going on, there is pretty much no question that someone is going to wind up in the pool doing their best William Holden impression—the only questions are who and when.

While the broad outlines of the plot of “A Bigger Splash” more or less correspond with “La Piscine,” Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have made any number of changes to the material, some definitely for the better and some of them deeply questionable. One of the cleverest ideas—and by all reports, the credit should go to Tilda Swinton for it—was the decision to have Marianne’s ability to speak be reduced to practically nil. Not only does it serve a practical benefit by having one less voice yammering away, especially in conjunction to the motormouthed Harry, but it adds an additional layer of mystery to Marianne’s thoughts about her old lover returning to take her back—is her silence in the face of her ex’s brashness because she literally cannot speak for herself or because she doesn’t want to have to come out and say that maybe she, for all of her alleged love of her current domesticity, would like to go back to those wild days. On the other hand, the decision to underscore scenes with mentions of an incipient immigrant crisis that blows up at roughly the same time as the events at Casa Marianne sounds like a good idea in theory—a way of showing that genuine tragedies are occurring while these rich dopes are gamboling by the pool without a care—but the effect is just too heavy-handed to have the desired dramatic impact. Another problem is the quasi-operatic tone that Guadagnino employs throughout in much the same manner that he did in his previous Tilda Swinton-starring melodrama of forbidden romance, “I Am Love”—it sounds interesting in theory but it just doesn’t quite work in practice because the emotions are so dialed up right at the start that they don’t really have anywhere to go after a while. I also question the decision to keep the details of what exactly goes down between Paul and Penelope off-screen for the most part—it is easy enough to infer what happened, I suppose, but in a film that wears virtually everything else on its sleeve, to be oblique in this particular regard just seems strange.

As for the performances, they literally run the entire gamut, though each viewer may have their own ideas regarding in what order they lie. For example, Ralph Fiennes demented turn as Harry will split viewers between those who consider his work to be knowing genius and those who write it off as an overblown camp monstrosity. Personally, I lean towards the latter but even though this is the kind of bad performance that only a truly great actor would dare to give (lesser talents wouldn’t dream of letting it all hang out as he does here, including an interpretive dance to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” that defies description), it is certainly something that you haven’t seen before from him. On the other hand, Tilda Swinton is kind of magnificent as Marianne and in no way lets her character’s reduced verbal skills get in the way of creating a full and complex character who only grows deeper and more unknowable as the story progresses—also, her depiction of a silent orgasm alone is almost worth the price of admission. In the case of Schoenaerts, he must have realized early on that between the highly stylized turns from Fiennes and Swinton, no one was going to be paying much attention to anything he did and so he takes a low-key approach that may not be especially memorable but which does seem like a relief compared to Fiennes’s histrionics. The weakest link in the cast, perhaps inevitably, is Dakota Johnson as Penelope, who, to put it bluntly, is no Jane Birkin. She looks great, of course, but never brings much of a personality to the proceedings—even when she is naked, she barely seems present—and when certain revelations about her character are made late in the proceedings, they don’t really work because she just is not able to pull them off.

Jean-Luc Godard once famously pronounced that “the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie” and in the case of “A Bigger Splash,” someone has not only made a film that serves as a critique of the things that do not work here, they actually did it 12 years before this one was made. That film was Francois Ozon’s diabolical and elegant erotic drama “Swimming Pool” (2003)—a film that itself was sort of an unofficial riff on “La Piscine” but which told its somewhat similar story with plenty of wit, style and mystery, the occasional surreal touches, genuine erotic heat and standout performances from Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier as the representatives of two different generations forced to share the same luxurious getaway over the course of a long and languid summer. By comparison, “A Bigger Splash” has many of the same ingredients but, unlike the cook preparing an exquisite ricotta in one of the more memorable scenes, it does not quite know how to pull them all together into a satisfying whole. It tries and I suppose if I had a greater fondness for Guadagnino’s singular filmmaking style—ironically, his films have often been pasted by critics in Italy while being celebrated elsewhere—I might have responded to it more than I did. “A Bigger Splash” looks ravishing throughout and Tilda Swinton is pretty great but my guess is that, like most of the characters on the screen, most viewers will find themselves wishing about halfway through that they had just stayed home.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=30228&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/12/16 13:32:41
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  04-May-2016 (R)
  DVD: 06-Sep-2016


  DVD: 06-Sep-2016

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