Chalk up A Bigger Splash as yet another fine example of one of my favorite dramatic subgenres: The Party Out of Bounds. A wealthy, white music industry couple get away from it all on a Sicilian island only to be rudely interrupted by a loud mouth producer/ex-lover and his hungry-for-trouble daughter. At first the couple tolerates the boisterous presence of their old friend but as he continually overstays his welcome the situation turns violently sour & then breaks in half. I love bottled up dramas when folks sickened by each other feel compelled (usually by a dangerous combination of lust & alcohol) to verbally duke it out in a cramped space instead of calling off the party & sending everyone on their not-so merry way. In A Bigger Splash‘s best moments it’s a wonderfully sadistic drama in this way, cramming four stage play-ready characters into a tight space & turning their cautious love for one another into murderous hatred.
Tilda Swinton stars as David Bowie’s less ethereal stand-in, an on-hiatus rock star recovering from a vocal surgery in romantic bliss with her recovering alcoholic husband. Their serene getaway is short-lived as the party’s crashed by the hopelessly crass, self-absorbed social terrorist music producer who haunts their past. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastic job as this obnoxious catalyst, turning the pathetic sadness of reliving your glory days into a mission statement & a battle cry. Dakota Johnson rounds out the cast as the producer’s hot-to-trot daughter, a literal siren on the rocks intending to seduce the blissful couple into annihilation from the other end. This is a huge step up for Johnson, who’s coming off a hot streak of stinkers like 50 Shades of Grey & How to Be Single to put in a well-measured performance that proves she can (emotively) duke it out with the best of them. Swinton is as consistently magnetic here as always, even with the power of speech mostly removed from her arsenal. It’s Fiennes who’s given free reign to chew scenery, though, and he does a wonderfully maniacal job driving the party as far out of bounds as he can, at times recalling Ben Kingsley’s dastardly crass performance in (the far superior work) Sexy Beast.
Unfortunately, A Bigger Splash has an occasional tendency to release steam from the dramatic pressure cooker in a way that relieves the central tension a little too easily. I’m thinking particularly of the flashbacks to Swinton’s & Fiennes’s glory days as a coked-up power couple on top of the rock & roll world. There’s too much escapism in those moments, distracting from the cramped discomfort of the the mounting resentment at hand even when they refer to past conflicts. That might be a personal bias, though, as it was the exact same problem I had with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs film last year. I also thought showing Swinton performing her rock act in these flashbacks was a mistake. The film puts so much pressure on her voice/the music to be amazing that there’s no possible way for the reality to live up to it.
Still, director Luca Guadagnino does a great job here of turning a small cast drama into an intense visual display and a powder keg of lust & hurt feelings. Every body involved is a target for sexual leering. Unusually sharp focus of food, drink, and spinning records intensifies the sensual bacchanal of the central conflict. Up-close, direct to the camera line delivery recalls the discomfort of a great Bergman monologue. Even though he makes a few missteps in turning down the heat when it should be blasted, Gudagnino gleefully searches for the Devil in the details & employs an especially game Fiennes as a romance monster hellbent on tearing the whole world down so he can start from scratch (or dry hump the ruins). Although A Bigger Splash isn’t wholly successful, it is a remarkable experience that refuses to shy away from the violent urges of romantic jealousy & party-out-of-bounds societal unraveling. It’s impressive even when it stumbles and easily could’ve been much less memorable in less capable hands.