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A Bigger Splash - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
A Bigger Splash
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

"You're pretty domesticated for a rock star," says young Penelope (Dakota Johnson), to Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), and in one line she gets to the heart of A Bigger Splash, a drama about a love quadrangle that happens to feature one middle-aged internationally famous singer. One of the many refreshing things about this movie is that Marianne's age is never discussed, never once even mentioned. One of the many weird things about it is that it flashes back a couple of times to her onstage in a sold out arena, but never once is she shown actually singing there.

She is shown singing in a brief flashback to a recording session in a studio, where former lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes) introduces her to current lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). It's worth noting that Schoenarts is 37, nearly two decades younger than Tilda Swinton -- and, again, his age is never mentioned. It's another reason to appreciate this movie, which exists in a world in which older men are still paired with far younger women without comment but when he genders are reversed it's usually somehow a bigger deal. But not in this case.

But then, Dakota Johnson is herself 26, and here playing a character far younger -- Penelope is in it to win it with Paul. She is also Harry's daughter, a "surprise" brought along when Harry flies in to crash Marianne and Paul's rather serene party that the movie opens with. Director Luca Guadagnino presents us with brief scenes of the two of them sunbathing nude in silence, or driving along the Mediterranean-Italian countryside, or lathering each other with mud. In one of many fantastic shots by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (Only Lovers Left Alive), they receive a phone call at the beach from Harry just before the shadow of his plane is seen passing over them.

Tilda Swinton, ever the actress to take on odd roles, speaks only a few proper lines in this movie; most of the time she is silent, having to pantomime, occasionally whispering. Her singer character, Marianne, has just had a throat surgery that necessitates being silent for a minimum of two weeks. This creates even greater difficulty when her motor mouth ex, Harry, shows up.

Ralph Fiennes certainly plays against type in the role of Harry. Surely he has played many very different characters but one common quality is that the tend to be fairly subdued. (Okay, his Voldemort is arguably a little over the top, but even that is outdone in this movie.) His Harry Hawkes is a guy in a permanent manic phase, never able to shut up, eager to fill whatever possible silence that might be created by an incapacitated Marianne and a quiet Paul.

Marianne and Paul are happy with each other, their getaway bliss broken by Harry's and Penelope's very different agendas. It's all pretty standard stuff: love, heartache, lust, betrayal. What makes A Bigger Splash set apart is in the setting, the manner of the storytelling, and in particular the actors themselves. Fiennes has particular finesse in playing a man not quite as free spirited as he's hell-bent on letting on. It's easy to imagine Swinton as a Bowie-esque rock star. In fact it's easy to imagine Swinton and Bowie having come from the same distant planet.

But, Swinton can also tap a depth of humanity when she needs to. We never hear her sing in any way that makes her sound like an international superstar, but that's not the point. She makes the character undeniably compelling, even within the simplicity of this story construct. The same is true, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, of the other actors. It's always nice to see Dakota Johnson doing well in a movie that's not a pile of shit like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Much of A Bigger Splash is just plain beautiful to look at much of the time, both because of the locations (one stunning shot features a drive along a cliff-side road that's above a sea of clouds) and because of Le Saux's cinematography. Some of it is neutralized by oddly quick zooms here and there, making you feel like the cinematographer suddenly lost his balance and then quickly regained it.

There's something a little off about this movie, which will make it deeply appealing to some and either off-putting or dull to others. I belong to the former camp. Admittedly this may be the result of how many movies I see; anything that does well at setting itself apart has value. But the rest of the elements come together with an unusual elegance as well, especially with a subtle but effective twist at the end. It's hard to describe the story here without making it sound like some corny soap opera, but it couldn't be further from that. This is a movie that lifts itself up on the strength of its own beautiful strangeness.

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton make A BIGGER PLASH.

Overall: B+
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