A Bigger Splash: A film for the senses

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Lush, seductive and thrilling, Luca Guadagnino’s latest is an ultra-stylish visual feast.

A Bigger Splash is the most pleasurably stylish new release I have seen this year.

With this rather hyperbolic praise for its distinctive sense of style, I am not only referring to the ultra-luxe and magnificent Dior ensembles Tilda Swinton gracefully wears throughout. (That is a big part of the deal however, so more on that later.) I am instead talking about the entire visual package of A Bigger Splash: a chocolate-lava-cake-of-a-film that delectably pours out its warm insides once gently pierced, and is designed to nourish one’s optical pleasures first and foremost. From its costumes to its camerawork, the breezy crafts of this sun-soaked, gorgeously sensual thriller gently brush your skin with visual splendor, rather than forcibly get under it. As director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) softly applies a persistent, luscious and sexual tease onto his Italy-set, low-key visual palette, the sultry seductiveness of A Bigger Splash bursts out of all of its components and becomes a film you can almost taste and smell.

David Kajganich’s script –loosely based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 New Wave classic La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider– demands certain visual elements to do some heavy lifting by design. While the increasingly dangerous A Bigger Splash is an ensemble piece consisting of four players, its most striking (and crucial) character happens to be Marianne Lane (played by Tilda Swinton with a magical touch); a temporarily voiceless rock star (a la David Bowie), vacationing on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) and recovering from a recent throat surgery she underwent to preserve her vocal chords. While the rest of the clan members –which includes the intruding, ostentatious old flame Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his Lolita-esque daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson)– are free to speak up (too much, at times) about their thoughts and feelings, Marianne’s contrasting quietness opens up a wealth of possibilities in conveying the film’s remaining senses. What Marianne can’t say, she hears. Smells. Feels. And so do we: A Rolling Stones track tears through a scene (with the ex-music producer Harry effervescently dancing to it) at one point. A fish cooked in a salt crust is cut open at another. Marianne wearing a deep v-neck, white jump suit and subtle gold eye make up simultaneously freezes and burns the screen at yet another. And the scrumptious list goes on.

Swinton’s aforementioned wardrobe plays a crucial role in making a visual statement on behalf of her character, both legitimizing and challenging Marianne’s known and perceived image. In one scene, a startled Penelope remarks that Marianne is “very domesticated for a rock star”. We instantly know and understand why she brings up Marianne’s tameness, despite all her flamboyance. Marianne’s many (albeit, temporary) contrasts –a voiceless singer, a dedicated yet perplexed lover, and a stark white vacationer on the Mediterranean- manifest themselves in her clothes too. Despite her cool haircut and make up and the unifying/unmistakable contemporary edge of her wardrobe, her costumes –designed by Giulia Piersanti in close collaboration with the former Dior Creative Director Raf Simmons prior to his departure from The House of Dior– have undeniably clean, minimalist and even feminine lines between cinched waists (signature Dior, all the way from the “New Look” years of defined waistlines), flowing skirts (or trousers), flirty knots & twists and irresistible/skin-revealing drapes. She may be a tamed-looking rock star all right, but she can just as easily pass for a nameless woman with an exceptional sense of style, not remotely interested in hiding her imperfections. As Tilda Swinton puts it about Marianne, “She’s just trying to find a real life among the sequins.” And the exquisite Dior creations give her exactly that: a touch of anonymity with considerable standout intrigue.

As far as visualized sexual tension goes, it doesn’t get a lot more intense than A Bigger Splash. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux –whose credits not only include Guadagnino’s I Am Love, but also (rather fittingly) François Ozon’s sexy thriller Swimming Pool– patiently peels the artificial, polite layers of foreplay one by one and leaves the film’s characters stark naked. Mostly metaphorically. And sometimes, quite literally. His camera peeks behind the bushes, tracks the characters with an impending, swelling sense of anticipation, captures slithering snakes (for real) in all their menace and applies a muted brush all over the film: quieting down even the bluest blue of the Mediterranean, dialing up the heat elsewhere. That is until the tragedy arrives and some treacherous rain washes over the remnants of bad, self-indulgent behavior. Even then, the sensuality of it all lingers in the damp air.

Simply put, A Bigger Splash will caress and awaken your senses with tender strokes of beauty and desire. You just might need an ice-cold shower after it. Just saying.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.