A BIGGER SPLASH. Enchants with its atmosphere and the outstanding performances

A Bigger Splash doesn’t want to leave your head, making the viewer ponder over the choices made by the characters and the consequences of their decisions.

Krzysztof Walecki

10 July 2024

bigger splash

Rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her partner, documentary filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), are relaxing on a sun-drenched Italian island, far from any worries and problems. Her vocal indisposition forces her to remain almost completely silent, but this is no discomfort for the couple, who spend their time having sex, swimming, and sunbathing. Unexpectedly, they are visited by Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a music producer and Marianne’s former lover, as well as Paul’s friend, a man of boundless energy, full of life and an insatiable appetite. He is accompanied by his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whose existence he only discovered a year ago. Marianne allows them to stay, unaware of the emotional and relational turmoil that will soon engulf the four of them. Luca Guadagnino’s film has two undeniable advantages. First, if someone wants to go on vacation to warm countries but lacks the time or money, they can instead watch A Bigger Splash and feel at least a bit of that wonderfully lazy summer atmosphere.

The sunshine pleasantly radiates from the cinema screen, and we can almost taste the Italian cuisine. In a film where sensuality is emphasized at every turn—through the nudity of the main actors, for instance—creating an illusion of vacation for the viewer and stimulating their senses is just as important as the intellectual challenge presented by the plot. This plot can surprise—it’s partly a crime story even before a corpse appears on screen. The characters’ secrets, hidden goals, and motives make us closely watch every action of the four characters, seemingly innocent behaviors dictated by the holiday nature of the setting. The significance of such moments contributes to the underlying tension on which the Italian director’s work is built.

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The second strong point of the film is Ralph Fiennes. I fully realize this may seem obvious, as this actor almost always gives a top-notch performance wherever he appears. But in A Bigger Splash, his character itself becomes the subject of the film and a very likely reason why this story was made. Harry never says “no,” always on the front line for fun, enjoying life, and the joy that total freedom brings. It’s hard not to envy this character’s unrestrained attitude towards practically everything, which doesn’t mean we have to like him for it. The way he tries to almost force good humor on others, always being the loudest, happiest, and most uninhibited, can seem irritating. The greatest merit of Guadagnino and Fiennes is making Harry someone who awakens in us a desire to taste such a life without simultaneous guilt. The question is whether he himself is capable of any feelings.

The story progresses at a lively pace, and the warming sun can lull our vigilance, pointing to a much more positive and unpretentious film.

However, ambitions lurk precisely in questions about the permissibility of such unrestrained freedom and eternal fun, about where this attitude leads and if there are any limits for Harry and those like him. The script wisely avoids dividing what is good and bad, showing instead different viewpoints and reactions to treating life as eternal bacchanalia. It’s up to us whose perspective we choose—Marianne’s, the silent, domesticated rock star, still drawn to her former lover and his lifestyle; Paul, dissatisfied with Harry’s visit, yearning for peace and privacy; or Penelope, the Lolita trying to take advantage of the situation, far from home in the summer. But even with her, it’s hard to clearly define motivations.

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I didn’t mention Harry in this list because he’s Bacchus himself, the god of wine and fertility. Someone who sets the order, plays beyond his strength, and wants others to play with him. It’s not surprising that even towards his daughter, his impropriety reveals itself, in which he sees nothing wrong. Guadagnino’s twist lies in Harry questioning this freedom in others at a certain point. It’s no secret that even gods can’t free themselves from the chains of human passions and jealousy, but in the case of Fiennes’ character, these feelings, of which he himself was likely unaware, take over. The fun eventually leads to a crime that ends these bacchanalia.

The change is dramatic—the sun is obscured by clouds, the characters stop laughing, and the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack are replaced by Popol Vuh and the music from the film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. How fitting. However, I do not intend to reveal what happens next. Not because the plot veers into sensational territory, offering viewers numerous attractions and twists. On the contrary—the director, instead of focusing on genre benefits, moves towards interesting observations of his characters, who reveal new facets after the tragedy. Secrets are uncovered, circumstances are exploited (this is perhaps the first film where the refugee political situation is not only shown but also exploited in a cunning way), but it seems that everything important has already been said.

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Guadagnino’s film enchants with its atmosphere and the outstanding performances of its dynamic quartet—admittedly, while Fiennes stands out, the other three also find themselves excellently in their roles. But A Bigger Splash surprisingly doesn’t want to leave your head, making the viewer ponder over the choices made by the characters and the consequences of their decisions. The finale offers no ready-made solutions, even giving a sense of unfulfillment, but perhaps that’s the point. It’s hard not to appreciate the craftsmanship of this summer morality play. And I must admit, the more you think about it, the better it seems.