Some films are so original that you'd never guess in a million years that they're remakes.
Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash is such a one of a kind movie that I was taken aback upon discovering that it's a reimagining of La Piscine, a 1969 French film with soap opera overtones. Guadagnino's take on the sultry story is far too quaint to be widely embraced by American audiences, but its flavor is so fresh that it should not be ignored.
A Bigger Splash is filmmaking as fluid as life itself, as sensuous as the first body you ever explored, as delicious as your favorite temptation; though not consistently so.
La Piscine was apparently a straightforward drama, but A Bigger Splash carves out an enthrallingly idiosyncratic genre of its own. It's at times erotic and dramatic, at others hilarious and life giving. The movie swims through this sea of sensation as organically as multifaceted human life does, seemingly enjoying its own narrative as much as we're meant to.
A Bigger Splash follows world famous, David Bowie-esque rockstar Marianne Lane (indie queen Tilda Swinton, perhaps coyly teasing the conspiracy theorists who believe that she and Bowie were the same person) and her partner Paul (Matthew Schoenaerts) on vacation to a gorgeous Italian island. Marianne is recovering from vocal surgery and cannot speak, but that doesn't stop her and Paul from engaging in wild exploits, both in the surrounding nature and of the sexual nature.
Their plans are thrown into disarray when Marianne's former partner and producer, Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes: that's Voldemort, all you Harry Potter fans), suddenly joins them with a young woman who turns out to be his newly discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson, of 50 Shades of Grey infamy). Cue every character fighting off lust among soaking wet Italian poolsides and seasides.
The story draws one in immediately due to its depiction of an idyllic setting. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, whose stylized work has elevated other unnoticed indie wonders such as Only Lovers Left Alive, does an immaculate job at bringing location to life. He has a tendency to establish scenes with tantalizing shots of small details rather than the usual wide-angled views of landscapes. Close-ups of fresh fish and ricotta cheese attract us to a scene that we can practically smell; beautiful locales flit fickly through the frame with the accuracy of a human eye trying to catch new sights. Saux set stages by capturing feeling.
The same could be said of the director and writer. A Bigger Splash's most intricate success is its uncanny ability to capture the rawness of human life in motion and conflict. The interactions between the central four characters are breathtaking in their elegance.
The screenplay suggests an innate understanding that drama isn't driven by scandal alone: the film invests a lot of time fleshing out- both physically and metaphorically- the relationships between the four before attempting narrative turns involving them. As such, I spent the first two acts of the film in legitimate awe while watching the turbulent complexity of these human beings come to vivid life. Whether they're cutting through water, making love or fighting, they're fascinating people.
The actors and actresses express a similar admiration for their characters. Each one of their performances is a career high. This is a movie starring Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, so that is high praise. Swinton's silent expressiveness is winning, Fiennes' unhinged hedonism is captivating, Schoenaerts matches their skill throughout, and Dakota Johnson continues to prove her talent extends to far more than prolific nude scenes. A Bigger Splash features one of the best casts of the year, no contest.
After the first 90 minutes, I was convinced I'd be giving the film a perfect rating. Quite unfortunately, the tone explodes during the final act. It's depressingly messy. After a key narrative event unfolds, it felt like all of the filmmakers' capabilities fell apart in the event of dealing with its fallout. The movie violently alternates between an absurd desire to keep the tone light in the face of serious happenings and a thriller vibe that utterly fails.
As to why it fails, I'd conjecture that the third act stops being about people. The focus jarringly shifts from the characters themselves to "get them from point 'plot twist' to point 'ending'". It's a common pitfall for personality driven movies, but one that could have been avoided given the director's previously displayed talent.
Regardless, A Bigger Splash holds up as a unique experience on the whole. It's the sort of dreamy, infectiously pleasurable filmmaking that stays with you no matter its inconsistency.