When Marianne (Tilda Swinton), her lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his formerly estranged daughter, Pen (Dakota Johnson), retreat to a sun-drenched Italian island, relationships become confused, jealousies flare, and it all culminates in a death. Bestrewn with references to songs, album titles, and personnel, A Bigger Splash is a virtual paean to The Rolling Stones, and simultaneously a remake of 1969’s La Piscine, whose death by drowning denouement is now recontextualised to include Ralph Fiennes and the watery demise of Stones founder, Brian Jones, at the bottom of his swimming pool.
The reconfiguring is odd, but only in a comparative sense. The restlessness of the film comes from its quavering attempts to reconcile archetypal rock debauch with modern sensibility. As such, articulate character pathos vie intermittently with a Bacchanalian sense of fun that doesn’t stop short at misfortune. When one of the protagonists perishes, Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” suggests less a sense of chaos than a mordant dance of joy. The film’s sense of opposition is partially appropriate because two of its main characters are intentional artefacts: Harry is a hedonistic Limey record producer, and Marianne, his ex-lover, is a washed up, Bowie-esque androgen recovering from throat surgery. Yet simultaneously, the logistics of time suggest a serious displacement, a nostalgia that exceeds their own middle age.
Fiennes is a standout in an excellent cast, including Swinton, who barely talks, and Johnson, whose frequently poor roles belie her own ability. A Bigger Splash is both livelier than the movie on which it was based, and more confused in its intent. Like the band that it adulates, its best asset is the vulnerability with which it underscores its own sleaze.