Ralph Fiennes’ performance in “A Bigger Splash” is a lot like a tornado in a Kansas trailer park. He’s impossible to ignore, you’re never know which way he’s going and heaven help anyone who gets in his way.
It takes a tour de force performance to stand out in a film that features compelling performances by Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson. They are so good that even when Fiennes is not on screen, the quality never waivers.
All of these strong performances unfold in a story of love, lust, betrayal and rock ‘n’ roll on Pantelleria, the volcanic island in the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. Legendary rock star Marianne Lane (Swinton) and her lover, Paul (Schoenaerts), are there while Marianne recuperates from a surgery that could end her musical career.
Life is quiet and calm. Then Harry (Fiennes) arrives, dragging along Penelope (Johnson), the daughter he didn’t know he had until a year ago. Harry and Marianne have a history together, both through his work as a music producer and romantically for six years.
The quiet and calm is replaced by Harry’s verbal and emotional onslaught. Even the simple act of eating dinner becomes a reason for Harry to entertain a large audience.
All of this unfolds while the sexual tension smolders like the dormant volcanoes that created the island. Harry uses a passive/aggressive approach to chip away at Paul’s confidence, even resorting to countless comments about Paul’s suicide attempt.
The script by David Kajganich has no smooth edges. Each line of dialogue, no matter how inconsequential it might sound, is designed to chip away at the emotional walls all four have erected. The most obvious is Harry’s unrelenting assault on the relationship Paul and Marianne have. But no one in this group is above being stripped emotionally bare.
Most surprising is Johnson, who continues to show growth as an actor. She gives the character a depth through both a guarded sexuality and a maturity that makes her a worthy player in this game of emotional dodge ball.
Director Luca Guadagnino magnifies all of the personal stories with a shooting style that is as hard to predict as the performance by Fiennes. There are times when he will shoot the film in a conventional style, only to jump to a shakey hand-held approach. Guadagnino has no problem letting the camera linger on insignificant scenes, such as a performance by Harry in a karaoke bar or a walk to the local lake, that comes across like more of a travelogue than a dramatic film.
The director shows a passion for extreme closeups and long shots that come and go in a very unconventional manner. By the end, it becomes clear that part of his process is to use the camera as a way of giving clues to the emotional state of his players.
None of that is needed for Fiennes, who takes command of the movie the second he arrives and keeps a death hold on the emotional elements until his departure. Under normal circumstances, Harry would be the kind of person you would avoid because of how big and loud he can be. But Fiennes finds the right amount of humanity to make the character extremely likable.
It’s his performance that makes the biggest splash in “A Bigger Splash.”