Monday, May 9, 2016

A Bigger Splash (**1/2)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino


Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino doesn't mind embracing stereotypes of Italian sensuality, embracing themes of sex and passion with a no-holds-barred approach, and casting actors who are sure to be up to the task of stripping down and making that same embrace. His latest film, A Bigger Splash, has such a splendid sense of mischief, a nose for scoping out sex in the innermost center of its characters. At one moment, a character played by Dakota Johnson decries that she is cursed to "fall in love with every beautiful thing", while a character played by Matthias Schoenaerts responds to her that the affliction must be paralyzing. Here are two young beautiful actors in Johnson and Schoenaerts, and Guadagnino shows no apparent shame in filling his frames only with performers who can fill the quota of beauty. This isn't to say that love does not exist in the Italian filmmaker's universes; it does, but it is always undone by illicit longing. His 2009 film, I Am Love, was a masterful portrayal of a woman (played by Tilda Swinton) undone by a lustful act with a younger man. Human beings are always having sex with people they shouldn't, and Guadagnino is fascinated by this phenomenon. A Bigger Splash takes a magnifying glass to the kind of pain and distrust that is born out of the sexual composure of those without barriers. The characters are filled with demons that they refuse to face, instead pooling their emotions in physical embrace, in nudity, in the seductive landscapes of Southern Italy. They walk through vistas with sun-kissed skin, and Guadagnino's camera focuses so completely not only on their beauty but their unadulterated, pulsating inner turmoil. Films about sex are not usually this bare. A Bigger Splash is not shy or modest. It accepts drugs and rock n' roll and that other pesky thing that always completes the trilogy.

Swinton returns to work with Guadagnino, playing Marianne Lane, a world famous rock star with a life full of crazy stories and accomplishments. In the midst of middle age, Marianne has accepted a more domesticated lifestyle, and after surgery on her vocal chords has left her without her ever-important voice, she retreads to a remote Italian island with Paul (Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker with a past filled with addiction, haunted by a failed suicide attempt that he refuses to talk about. Of course, Marianne and Paul do not have to speak to each other, since Marianne can't speak, and the two spend their days laying nude in the sun, indulging in mud baths, and making love out in the open, enjoying the seclusion. Their seclusion is quickly disrupted, though, with the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a spirited former lover of Marianne with an illustrious career as a music producer for such legendary acts like The Rolling Stones and, of course, Marianne Lane. Harry is escorted by Penelope (Johnson), whom Marianne and Paul quickly assume is his new pet ingenue, but is quickly revealed to be Harry's daughter. Marianne never knew Harry had an adult-aged daughter, and neither did Harry until close to a year ago. Penelope is a born troublemaker, dressing provocatively and unafraid to make advances to Paul and even at times toward her father Harry. Harry, on the other hand, is a born center-of-attention, unwilling to allow any moment pass without a story from his past or a reference to his relationship with Marianne. Paul is immediately put off by their new visitors, by Harry's pomposity and Penelope's constant attempts at sexual suggestion. Still struggling with addiction, Paul flinches at Harry's open drinking and his vocal endorsement of substances and debauchery.  Marianne and Paul have escaped their past lives of out-of-control behavior, but with the arrival of these two ne'er-do-wells, they find themselves wrapped into several forms of temptation, unsure if they can overcome it.

I'm not sure if any of the four main actors are right for their parts. Fiennes at times seems too stately to be such a hedonist, Johnson seems more fitted to the modest sexuality of Fifty Shades of Grey and Schoenaerts if anything is playing a part that's too tame considering the possibilities of his ample sexuality. And yet, all of these performers are so enthusiastic in these parts, so willing to go where Guadagnino wants them to go. Swinton is a known chameleonic performer, which is probably why so many filmmakers want to work with her. Limited to as little dialogue as possible, Swinton seems to almost be experimenting with the form here, trying to see how much emotion and passion she can exude without the ability to proclaim it. Being pulled between the untamed past that Harry seems ripe to bring her back to, and the newfound homebody-ness that she's found with Paul, Swinton plays Marianne as a woman trying so desperately to convince herself to embrace the conservatism of her new life. As for Johnson, her character is shrouded in so much mystery. Is she really Harry's long-unknown daughter? Does she really have an illicit interest in Paul, or is it all a manipulative game? Johnson is still in the midst of becoming the movie star that many have invested in her to be, and it's smart of her to try her hand at something like A Bigger Splash, to convince filmmakers that she's much more of a performer than Fifty Shades may lead you to believe. I'm not sure she really pulls off the role here, though. There's so little of the character in the screenplay, and Johnson seems to be just as much in the dark about her as we are. When later in the film, it comes time to begin revealing information about her, it doesn't seem to fit. It's Fiennes who seems to have the most to gain here. Fiennes is the kind of brilliant actor who will probably never be appropriately appreciated until the times come when we'll no longer be able to. The English actor dives deep (literally) into Harry's egomania, his uncharted vanity and insecurity. It's easy to see how women like Marianne and even Penelope can be drawn to him - Fiennes turns self-aggrandizement into a master skill.

I'll probably never understand why three-fourths into A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino decides to make the film plot heavy, and abandon the sexual intrigue that gave the film its very best moments. The moment it decides to adopt elements of a crime thriller is the exact moment I found the film's story a bit thin. A Bigger Splash is a stylish exhibition, not a dense narrative, and the film's screenplay (written by David Kajganich) does itself no favors by focusing on that narrative for its final half-hour. Everything leading up to that final quarter, though, is splendid. Watching Fiennes alternate between master of ceremonies and shrewd seducer is something to behold, and the sexual tension held between the four principle characters (everyone seems to have interest in sleeping with everyone) is a much more fascinating plot device to build on then the contrived thriller aspects that the film resorts to by its end. This film doesn't have the consistency of I Am Love. That film knew its themes so wholeheartedly, and never skipped a beat. Splash has too many loose ends, which would be fine if it wasn't also interested in tightening them. The film's two veteran actors, Swinton and Fiennes, are obviously having more fun here. Schoenaerts and Johnson seem a little too interested in the psychology of the story, while the older actors embrace the purity of the id. It's an interesting idea, the older people corrupting the young, but its another captivating theme that Splash alludes when it comes to the end. I enjoyed this film, despite its absurdity. The film is just so damn sexy, and that spirit is infectious, intoxicating. You'll find yourself incapable of looking away from screen. Too bad the story can't keep up, becoming almost impotent when trying to keep up.

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