The last trouble-in-affluent-paradise film I reviewed, Youth, was actually quite good, so I was curious to see how A Bigger Splash stacked up. This one went completely under my radar during its limited theatrical run, despite boasting an incredible cast. Directed by Italian Luca Guadagnino, the film follows a rock star's vacation on the island of Pantelleria, Italy. Her down time is interrupted by the arrival of an old friend and his adult daughter, and all sorts of domestic awkwardness ensues. Nicely acted and offering beautiful visuals, A Bigger Splash does take a sharp right turn in the second act, at which time its focus becomes a criminal investigation tinged with social politics.
Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) hangs onto relative sobriety with boyfriend Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) by her side. The pair vacations on a picturesque island in Italy during an extended work break necessitated by the rocker's recent throat surgery. Lane is surprised when former lover, longtime friend and record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) decides to come visit with his newly discovered adult daughter, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson). They all shack up at a sprawling estate, and Hawkes does enough talking to make up for Lane's forced quiet. The sexual tension is thick between Lane and Hawkes, and Lanier begins her own seduction games on Smedt. It is clear early on that trouble is brewing, though A Bigger Splash goes even darker than I expected.
Based on the 1969 Italian-French film La Piscine, A Bigger Splash is certainly unconventional in narrative and character motivations. It is tempting to scoff at the troubles of the rich and famous, but the unsympathetic characters are a necessary weakness in this morality play. Each lead has baggage. Hawkes' reckless behavior led to Lane's drug-fueled neurosis, and, in an attempt to cleanse her, he introduced Lane to Smedt several years prior. That worked exactly as planned, though not always to Hawkes' satisfaction. Smedt and Lane fell in love, and each is apparently a positive influence on the other. This bond is threatened, of course, by Hawkes' desire to reclaim Lane, and Lanier meddles out of boredom and twisted self-interest. The Hawkes/Lanier relationship is an odd one, and at one point Smedt tells Hawkes that he cannot escort his daughter in such a way that outsiders might think they were lovers. Hawkes discovered he was the girl's father two decades after the fact, and admits that he finds her attractive. Remember when I told you these people were unsympathetic?
There are several long, rambling and rather enjoyable scenes of these people just relating. That this material works is largely due to the fine actors. This is an interesting role for Swinton, who I would not have immediately picked to play an aging sex symbol. Fiennes is wound tight and giddy, and Schoenaerts is a nice counter to that rampant energy. Johnson looks a bit lost amid these actors, but I think this nubile naivete is purposeful, so in that regard she succeeds. Things eventually go badly for the foursome, and there is some really powerful and emotional acting at the climax. The inclusion of social politics and the allusions to Italy's refugee crisis are somewhat heavy handed, but they do not completely overpower the drama. Some of the film's darker revelations come out of left field, but A Bigger Splash proves willing to buck convention, which is more than I can say for most modern ensemble dramas.
The film's gorgeous locations and cinematography by Jean-Jacques Tarbes benefit from Fox's stellar 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image. Although the contrast is often purposely cranked up to reflect the sunny Italian coast lifestyle, A Bigger Splash offers a sharp, lifelike presentation with excellent fine-object detail and texture. Wide shots are crystal clear and without noise, and close-ups reveal the sunbaked faces and unique costumers of each character. Colors are bold and perfectly saturated, and the beautiful Italian sunsets are radiant. Black levels push slightly purple, and I did notice some minor crush in nighttime scenes.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix replicates the theatrical experience with strong dialogue reproduction and excellent range and fidelity in both quiet, dialogue-driven scenes and larger, bombastic, and music-backed sequences. Dialogue is crystal clear and without distortion, and subtle surround cues are present during the entire film. Lane's rock-music career is the cause of the more rambunctious surround action, and all elements are balanced appropriately. English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and a code to redeem for both iTunes and UltraViolet digital copies. The discs are packed in an eco-case that is wrapped in a slipcover. The extras are brief and inconsequential: You get some very short Promotional Featurettes (8:25 total/HD); a Gallery (2:25/HD) and the Theatrical Trailer (1:57/HD).
This unconventional ensemble drama offers sharp dramatic turns, strong acting and beautiful scenery, even if the narrative is not without problems. Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes lead the cast in this update of a 1969 Italian-French drama, and A Bigger Splash is certainly worth the time for the acting alone. Recommended.