It’s not what the trailer leads you to expect. That was my first thought; actually my second, after ‘I’m glad I didn’t come to see this with my parents’. As soon as the film starts up, submerging instantly in the intimacy between Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Marianne (Tilda Swinton) with no words spoken for the first few minutes, it lets the audience settle outside the standard expositionary-dialogue-heavy format that many films set up with.
You also find yourself quickly realising that it won’t be quite as dramatic as the trailer hypes it up to be. By the time Penelope (Dakota Johnson) offers Paul a cigarette as she does in the trailer, memorably saying that just because he doesn’t smoke, it “doesn’t mean you don’t want some”, we know he will refuse because it would be out-of-character for him to suddenly lean forward, eyes locked with hers and take a tense draw (as Penelope would love).
For most of the film, the characters stay remarkably real in their actions and don’t react a certain way just for the purpose of drama – although this does inevitably result in a distinct lack of drama. Tensions bubble under the surface, but only at the end did the writer decide that something needed to happen besides sightseeing and bickering. I found myself hoping that they wouldn’t resort to a death, but as soon as those two go into the pool for apparently no reason I knew that’s what the film was heading towards.
That said, the characters portrayed are complex and well-performed. Ralph Fiennes brings invaluable energy to the screen as Harry, making any scene he’s in the most exciting without doubt. The character of Harry is so outward and obnoxious in his demeanour and he would be a nightmare in real life – he’s easy to recognise in real acquaintances which makes him even more instantly grating, but the friction he causes and the sparks he sets flying provide a dynamism that the film needs.
Tilda Swinton gives a carefully considered performance made more impressive by the fact that her character cannot talk properly for the entire film, and barely says any words in the first half hour.
The aesthetically beautiful location of Sicily gives a secluded, foreign setting away (mostly) from Marianne’s fame and rockstar life reminiscent of her previous film Only Lovers Left Alive in which she starred alongside Tom Hiddleston and was similarly narrative-less but enjoyable nonetheless. It’s the focus on the central characters and getting under their skin that draws the audience in, and Swinton has proved once again in A Bigger Splash that she can deliver that complexity.
In the end, it’s the characters that drive this film. Their individual stories and the way they interweave and interact makes for an engaging two hours, even if there is little in terms of narrative. And I bet if you remember one thing from this film, it’ll be Fiennes’ ever-energetic and shameless dancing to the Rolling Stones.