Vocal surgery is the coin toss no professional singer wants to make. Will you come out of it like Adele or like Julie Andrews? Such is the uncertainty facing pop star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) at the outset of A Bigger Splash, a riff on 1969's La Piscine as interpreted by director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love). As the film begins, Marianne has hit on a novel strategy for recuperating from her recent procedure: absconding with her boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) to an island in the Mediterranean, where they can boink like weasels while avoiding most verbal communication. Would that we all had every one of those options.
Matters are complicated by the arrival of Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), a music producer whose history with Marianne goes beyond the purely professional. An energetic Dionysus with terminal diarrhea of the mouth, Harry immediately sets about tempting Marianne to do everything she shouldn't do – including taxing her vocal cords by speaking in full voice, along with a few options that may even be less healthy. At other times, he's waxing obnoxious about his work with the latter-day Stones: He's the sort of late-to-the-party blowhard whose idea of a great story is telling how he helped guide the recording of Voodoo Lounge. Who in the world would be proud of such a thing?
Intermittent flashbacks reveal that all three of these characters have quite the shared past. They also show us that, when Marianne isn't swanning about the Mediterranean in the dowdiest of holiday fashions, she's a raven-haired punkette who prepares to take the stage at stadium gigs by hawking up a big loogie. These segments are mercifully brief; despite the prodigious gift she exhibits here and elsewhere, let's just say that Swinton makes a far better David Bowie than a Chrissie Hynde.
In most other respects, A Bigger Splash is a pretty sophisticated piece of work, with cinematography that's engaging without ever being too ostentatious and performances that don't confuse full-blown idiosyncrasies with mere tics. Like 2002's Laurel Canyon, the movie is rooted in the belief that watching people who work in the music industry destroy each other emotionally can and should be more interesting to watch than it is in real life. Unlike that freakfest, however, A Bigger Splash displays a rich understanding of its characters' foibles, and the ways in which they betray each other instead of communicating their shared weaknesses.
It's a film about relationships on multiple levels – between lovers old and new, between tourists and natives, and (perhaps most astutely) between one generation and the next. See, Harry has brought along his young daughter (Dakota Johnson), a mocking Lolita who swiftly becomes a figure of both annoyance and morbid fascination to her hosts. Seemingly dedicated to wreaking havoc wherever she can, she torments one and all with her nubile sexuality and her proud ignorance of the vinyl "albums" these old poops seem to live for. Contemptuous of the past and boasting an id that extends in all directions, she's a lightning rod for resentment on the part of middle-agers who just can't seem to hand off the torch of immature behavior. In other words, she's more rock & roll than anyone or anything else on the screen. You just know she would have walked out on the sessions for Voodoo Lounge.
4 out of 5 stars
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