About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Film Review: A Bigger Splash (2016) by Luca Guadagnino 3/5

     Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash (2016) is a film with great potential that progressively falls flat.  It has many ingredients that, when slow-cooked, could synthesize and form even richer flavors than at the onset.  The cast, the locations, the line of work that the characters are in, and much more sets the stage for something that could be extraordinary.  Instead, A Bigger Splash dips into melodrama in the third act and loses its sincerity.  Politics simmer to the foreground of what could've been an apolitical film about love and the soul, but the film doesn't become a political film either... it's left muddled by its own lack of a precise identity and message.  Still, the events that precede such a narrative collapse are highly engaging because the characters are so interesting.
     Opening to the sound of a crowd cheering and the beat of a drum, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) makes her way onto the stage in a gigantic arena.  Donning a Ziggy Stardust get-up covered in iridescent sequins and a streak of metallic makeup going over her eyes like Adam Ant, Marianne Lane is a rock 'n' roll sensation.  This sequence establishes the scale of Marianne Lane's fame, and then is immediately contrasted by her current state of existence: silent and seemingly normal.  Like a nude by Lucian Freud or Courbet's The Origin of The World, Marianne Lane lies at the poolside naked.  Her partner, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), is nearby in the nude as well.  Eventually, they're in the pool making love.  Cuts from shot to shot and scene to scene are quick, but this opening sequence captures the mundanity of their relationship... the patient silence doesn't last for long though as it is interrupted by a cellphone ringtone – a connection to civilization.  Lying under the hot sun, covered in mud, Paul answers the phone and the rapidly-paced voice of the music producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) takes the film out of solitude and into the hustle and bustle of the Italian island culture.
     Traveling with his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), Harry Hawkes is a lively man who is incapable of remaining silent.  It's around Harry's introduction that it's revealed that Marianne Lane has undergone a surgery on her vocal cords that has rendered her essentially mute for the time being.  Her career as an androgynous rockstar is threatened by this, but her escape with Paul to Italy is treating her well.
     Though Tilda Swinton's character, Marianne Lane, is not supposed to be speaking so that she doesn't irreparably damage her vocal cords for good, she still manages to push through the pain with a scratchy whisper of a voice from time to time.  Her status as a temporary mute is unintentionally humorous, and there was much that could have been dramatically done had she remained silent throughout the film (or at least until the end).  Pantomiming her emotions and desires – after it has been established that she can force out a whisper and doesn't mind doing so – is a bit silly, as she's making a scene out of her own situation instead of continuing to exist as who she actually is.
     Much of the film, particularly its opening with the love scene in the swimming pool, the drives through the desert in a jeep, and the lying out in the sun call to mind Bruno Dumont's masterpiece Twentynine Palms (2003).  Twentynine Palms is subtly concerned with a post-9/11 American culture that is threatened by itself and by immigration.  Similarly, the refugee crisis in Europe becomes a central focus in the final act of A Bigger Splash, and to varying degrees of success.  Marianne Lane, Paul, Harry, and Penelope all have passports that have brought them to Italy for leisure.  There's a moment in A Bigger Splash where Paul and Penelope come face to face with some refugees in one of the most tense moments in the film – anything could've happened, and perhaps something actually should have.  Clearly, that was not an option though, as the film is strongly skewed against the privilege of A Bigger Splash's protagonists.
     Aesthetically, the cinematography is a bit showy.  With a shallow focus, rack focuses from subjects in the background (such as Ralph Fiennes) to subjects in the foreground (like a wine bottle) are distracting, as Guadagnino doesn't hide his filmmaking.  Even the noticeable inconsistencies from shot to shot of digital grain in scenes set at night were a bit off-putting for a film as fashionable this.  Had that digital noise in the image been established as the aesthetic for nighttime scenes, then it wouldn't have felt like a mistake.  Beyond that, Guadagnino's visual style allows for great performances to be captured as his camera moves about to document the actors' and actresses' movements.
     A Bigger Splash is a character driven film that loses sight of its characters when it matters most.  By the end of the film, many of the things that made it so exciting from the start are only faint memories, as Guadagnino's film has transitioned into something else entirely.  The performances remain strong, and Guadagnino's portrayal of the human body is something to be praised, but when the film falls into a conventional plot that heightens emotions for no reason at all, one has to wonder why it couldn't have turned out a myriad of different ways.

My ranking: 3/5

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