We all, at one point or another, would love the luxury of escaping; from our personal problems, our physical woes, our responsibilities, our history, or our future. The wealthy elite have this ability, at least in theory. They flit off to their villas and cabins, their homes away from home, where they might recuperate at their leisure. Such is the case in A Bigger Splash. The troubled celebrities of our story find themselves in hiding, yet incapable of escaping their past woes, or those of the world. Despite their best efforts, no one, no matter their wealth, can escape reality.
Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love follow-up, A Bigger Splash, showcases this escapism while touching on complex issues such as gender performativity, sexuality, and international conflict with subtle, understated grace and simultaneous volatility. It’s a slow burn, the kind of film that improves on each viewing, and reveals new depths the longer it stews in the foreground of your mind.
Splash focuses on aging rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton). A gender-swapped David Bowie, she’s in recovery-induced hiding with her lover and companion of six years, documentary filmmaker Paul de Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). She recently had vocal chord surgery to help regain her failing voice. The result is that she cannot speak, both out of physician-mandated recovery instructions, and an actual inability to produce sound.
Enter Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s ex and a major music producer, and his newly discovered nubile daughter, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson). The two impose themselves on Paul and Marianne’s recovery away from the world, while Harry plays on Marianne’s impetuous nature, urging her to sing and live hard despite her limitations. The result is an explosive clash that thrusts all manner of normalcy into a surreal atmosphere of loss.
A Bigger Splash is an erotic drama, a thriller of sorts that uses its intricate character study to fuel its intrigue. We are pulled in by the sexual escapades of our leads, as opening scenes set the tone with nude sunbathing, and silent pool-side orgasms. As Harry and Penelope arrive, the silence is broken, predominantly by Harry, who can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. The majority of the film’s dialogue is left to the men, who speak on behalf of Marianne, the mute, domesticated rock star, and Penelope, the nubile sexpot whose power is in her eyes and her hips.
But this representation of gender is conscious, depicting an exhilaratingly problematic depiction of contemporary gender roles and performativity. We are given two women left to portray the entire spectrum of female presence in society; Marianne, the ageing rock star with no voice or conceivable role in society other than to be adored, and Penelope, the youthful beauty who must use her body to get ahead, and has no concept of consequence. Her millennial approach to life seeps into the lives of her father, and his friends, poisoning things from the outside with a subtle glance and a grin. Would you like to know more…?