May 12, 2016
A Bigger Splash
A bigger cast could not have made me happier: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson and Ralph Fiennes, stuck in an arid and steamy Italian island having rich white famous people problems. Apparently, fame is a bitch, so they are morose, ex-suicidal, bored out of their wits, or manically orchestrating fun.
I was not a fan of director Luca Guadagnino's stylish melodrama I Am Love, also with La Swinton, but this one I found more delectable, in the way that sea urchin is delectable: salty, sweaty, messy, sexy, with the longueur of an interminable hot summer afternoon in crumbling Europe. Decadence is so much fun, yet it is rarely found on movie screens nowadays. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, mostly for this reason, and because the four stars are such pros, it's a joy to watch them bask like lizards in the sun, all rotting inside, each one in their own way.
Tilda Swinton plays a rock star called Marianne, who is recovering from her lost voice with Paul, her beau and minder (Matthias Schoenaerts, the man who makes my knees, my heart and my soul quiver). They make love, he takes care of her. It's Edenic, except that it is also sexy. All is good until her old flame shows up in the shape of Ralph Fiennes as Harry Hawkes, a devilish music producer, a manic louche with energy long past his impending expiration date, and his stunner of a newfound daughter Penelope, the sexy Dakota Johnson (who saved Fifty Shades Of Gray with her sense of humor).
Guadagnino is really good with atmosphere, and in particular, with the texture of the lives of spoiled people. You can tell his actors know this feeling in their bones. They lounge and laze about, colonizing the traditional island with their obnoxious fabulosity, Marianne wearing elegant nun-like clothes by Dior, Harry commandeering a little bar with karaoke, all of them appropriating the space around them with their extraordinary privilege.
I have seen most of Ralph Fiennes's movies, except for the ghastly Harry Potter series. He has never played a character like this before. He may not have been the first candidate to come to mind (I'm thinking Gary Oldman, less elegant; more rock & roll), but he makes up for it with an unsettling combination of desperate mischief and an equally desperate darkness that blossoms in Harry's rare moments of stillness. He is a middle-aged imp and the nonchalant way in which he disrupts people is careless, needy, and selfish. Yet, in the few moments where he settles down, he looks lost and devastated. He is utterly superficial, but he causes deep trouble. He is also not as bad as he could be. Penelope is worse. A quiet, lethal monster of self-involvement.
The whole thing is an unsavory menage a quatre, made particularly icky by Harry's inappropriate ways around Penelope. A backstory about how Harry basically ceded Marianne to Paul as if she were property to inherit compounds the incestuousness of it all.
At first, we think the movie is about Marianne, then we think it is about Harry. The four get a flimsy chance to show whatever ails them, but the movie is really about the obliviousness, the clubbiness and the sharp instinct for self-preservation of those who have it all.
Guadagnino spends three-fourths of the movie leisurely setting up the characters and their relationships, and one just sits there in the blazing sun waiting for things to disintegrate, which I found delightful. He subtly involves Italy around the edges with tales of immigrants dying to arrive at its shores; old-school, sleepy, provincial, Catholic Italy dealing with a harsh world by digging in its heels by tradition and exclusion. At the very end, bad things happen, not always credibly, but somehow powerfully. Dark fun in the sun.