With a garbled phone call on a micro-beach in Italy, the drama of A Bigger Splash begins. Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock star singer rendered silent by a vocal operation, and her partner Paul De Smedt (Matthais Schoenaerts) welcome friend and Marianne’s former lover Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) to their island retreat. And, as if Harry’s surprise visit didn’t come with plenty emotional baggage on its own, he arrives with a surprise daughter in tow (Dakota Johnson as Penelope Lannier). From their arrival on, the languid and deeply intimate feel of the first few minutes of the film cracks open, never to be closed—similar in many ways to Clouds of Sils Maria. The film is true to its designation as drama/mystery, and, not one for spoilers, I will leave the rest of the plot to be revealed only in theatres. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to talk about; A Bigger Splash is undeniably a highly crafted work of cinema, and even without plot spoilers, I won’t get through half of what could be said about the film in one post.
Immediately, viewers are soaked with beautiful, saturated film. More striking than the opening scenery and stars, the coloring is incredible. It’s rich, not immediately the coloring of a tense drama, but the languid golden glow more akin to a high fashion shoot. Indeed, at times, as the camera settled on Swinton’s character, it felt as though the scene were a still from Vogue—a brief moment of aesthetic pleasure to break the mounting tension of the film. In a particularly deft move, the coloring of the scenes shifts quite dramatically in several places—flashbacks to a club and concert feel darker, more gray. A trip to the police station is framed in shadow, shady walls in the waiting room the color of mold, and a wrought hike in the mountains shifts to dustier tones.
The visual language of the film is important not only because it underscores the technical skill of the production, but because the film is built off of what is unsaid. As the foursome’s tension ratchets up, I found myself scrutinizing the visual—a turn of the head, a flick of the eyes, a slight tightening of the mouth all heightened in importance. At some points, the viewer is given large visual clues that break up the more delicate cinematography. In one scene, Marianne, unable to speak but trying to stop the course of conversation, ‘accidentally’ nudges a glass off of the table with her foot. As the chatter swirls, the camera cuts to her foot slowly moving towards the glass, back to the discussion, back to her foot, to her face, then the glass shatters. These types of cuts and an occasional rapid zoom combine to disrupt the viewer’s experience and add to the tension that builds throughout the film.
The coloring is not the only exemplary part of the film. The costuming had each character nailed, from Paul’s tee shirts, worn through at the collar, to the simple yet clearly expensive shirt dress Marianne wears throughout the film. Twenty-two-year-old Penelope’s jean shorts and swimsuit tops feel like they came right out of the bottom of her suitcase, not meticulously crafted by a large costume department. The casting was almost pitch-perfect. Although Johnson, 26, feels a little unbelievable as a 22-year-old, her understated performance more than makes up for the suspension of belief. One point that struck me towards the end of the film was that each actor’s voice, including Swinton’s postsurgery whispers, has a certain quality that draws the listener in. This was especially notable given how little dialogue there was, and how much you desperately wanted any character to open their mouth and offer answers.
Although the movie was excellent, it was not perfect. In particular, the soundtrack was not on par with the rest of the film, and some of the quick cuts felt gratuitous. Overall, however, A Bigger Splash is a film that reels you in and leaves you walking out of the theatre feeling like you just stepped out of a soured Italian dreamscape.
— Lauren Christiansen