Editor’s Notes: A Bigger Splash is currently open in limited theatrical release.
Every film – good, bad, or ugly – has a “perfect” ending, a perfect resolution of the central conflict that drives the narrative from the first moment to the last, closing shot. But sometimes a film will go on and on, unraveling into a rushed, digressive denouement that leaves no one, least of all the audience, satisfied emotionally. A master filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock implicitly understood the inherent limits of audience engagement and ruthlessly pared down his denouements, often settling for a solitary, devastating shot (Vertigo) or a single, uplifting scene (North by Northwest). Unfortunately, director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Here), and his screenwriter, David Kajganich, loosely adapting Jacques Deray and Alain Page’s 1969 erotic thriller, La Piscine, squander every moment of good will, good will earned theme, character, and star power, by paradoxically following La Piscine’s imperfect, sprawling ending too closely.
When we first meet Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a Bowie-inspired rock star recovering from throat surgery, and her longtime boyfriend, Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), they’re enjoying the slowed down, bucolic pleasures of Pantelleria, a small island off the coast of Italy. But almost immediately a literal shadow – a low-flying airplane – interrupts their idyll. The plane carries Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s onetime record producer and former lover, and Harry’s daughter, Penelope Lannier (Dakota Johnson). Almost as quickly, Harry begins to disrupt the quiet, rhythmic status quo. An anarchic, filter-free, verbose presence, Harry upsets the seemingly stable balance, both in and out of Marianne and Paul’s romantic relationship. Harry has an agenda and it clearly involves more than just an impromptu visit with his ingénue daughter and old friends.
Over the course of several days, the push and pull of old relationships and old ways of being begin to assert themselves. While Harry remains an elemental force of nature, Marianne takes a naturally more reserved, even tactical approach, refusing to acknowledge, at least initially, any lingering feelings for Harry. Paul represents everything Harry doesn’t: Stability (with the potentially boring predictability that implies) while Harry represents Marianne’s turbulent, volatile past. Both have their attractions for Marianne, something a wary, distrustful Paul recognizes the moment Harry disembarks from his plane. Paul, however, takes a passive, defensive approach, letting Harry reveal his true intentions for the visit and towards Marianne. Their ensuing conflict also reveals a regressive, retrograde possessiveness towards Marianne that fails to fully recognize her full agency (i.e., she decides, they don’t).
Penelope, however, never emerges as a fully functioning, three-dimensional character. She’s a cypher, a plot device in search of a meaning beyond an object of desire for both Paul and her father (both inappropriate, but for wildly different reasons). Her cryptic behavior becomes a focal point of interest as A Bigger Splash moves toward a seemingly inevitable resolution of the central conflict, but inevitably becomes just one more unanswered question as she boards the flight that will take her home. Like so much else in A Bigger Splash, including Guadagnino’s misguided decision to turn his adaptation of Deray’s dated original into a sporadic, erratic homage to Hitchcock, it’s hard to shake the feeling of sharp disappointment that comes with recognizing the better, more satisfying film Guadagnino and Kajganich could have made from the source material, especially considering the involvement of a never better, revelatory Ralph Fiennes and the prodigiously talented Tilda Swinton as co-leads.
A Bigger Splash squanders every moment of good will earned and star power by paradoxically following its source material's imperfect, sprawling ending too closely.