IF YOU HAVE the money to languorously idle on its rocky beaches, Pantelleria must be heaven. But this paradisiacal lump of land—located halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, and therefore a transitional stop for African refugees—is also covered with snakes and lizards and blazing sun. Illustrating all too well the contradictory nature of its setting, A Bigger Splash contains interesting filmmaking choices comingling with terrible ones.
The best choice was putting Ralph Fiennes in this movie. He's goddamn great as Harry, an English record producer who's come to badger rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) during their self-imposed exile. He's brought along daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who observes quietly as dad drinks, cooks, swims, and generally acts like the most charming man in the world whenever he isn't being the most annoying one. Marianne is recovering from vocal surgery, which means Swinton doesn't speak at all apart for a few exaggerated croaks. It's a fascinating choice at first, but an untenable one—and outright stupid by the film's end.
Same goes for the thriller twist about two-thirds of the way in. Up to that point, we've been lulled into the rhythms of a character drama about these selfish rich people and their acute desires—and seen every last inch of their bodies (the amount of full frontal will no doubt trick some into thinking this is A Very Serious Film). The twist simply doesn't work, and it transforms the decisions these characters make into ones that follow necessary plot mechanics.
Still, there's a good amount to admire here, and there are scenes and images that have stuck with me. I'm confident in saying Fiennes' performance is worth leaving the house for, and I'm certain you won't find many films that contain as many ideas as this one does. Too bad they don't all land with a splash.