With the unexpected deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince before 2016 is even half over, it's hard not to feel like artists whose talents, personas, and even appearances could best be described as "otherworldly" are disappearing from the world. It's as if benign aliens living among us are suddenly being called back to their home planets. Perhaps the actress who most fits this description (though I certainly hope she stays earthbound for decades to come) is Tilda Swinton, who has been challenging, mesmerizing, and enthralling audiences throughout her career with her striking looks, boundless talent, and her ability to reinvent herself for every role she plays.
In light of these qualities, there's perhaps no better woman than Swinton for the lead role in A Bigger Splash, which was adapted from the 1969 French film La Piscine. Swinton plays an iconic rock star in the mold of David Bowie who has retreated to a small Italian island with her boyfriend to recover from throat surgery, only to have their peace and seclusion shattered by two unexpected guests. Watch the trailer for A Bigger Splash below.
Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a rock legend described as "the woman of the century" who has been sidelined by throat surgery that prevents her from speaking above a whisper. Her younger boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a documentarian who is nursing Marianne back to health as she recuperates in a villa on the volcanic Italian island of Pantelleria, located between the coasts of Tunisia and Sicily. But their wordless days spent sunbathing, reading, swimming, and snuggling in comparative equality and domesticity come to a jarring end with the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne's gregarious but obnoxious former producer and lover who introduced her to Paul. Accompanying Harry is Penelope (Dakota Johnson), Harry's recently-discovered daughter from an earlier fling.
With Harry's clear affection and history with Marianne -- along with his inability to shut up, filter his thoughts, or regulate his volume -- things quickly become tense with Harry imposing himself on every aspect of Marianne and Paul's once-relaxing holiday in an attempt to charm or force his way back into Marianne's life. Meanwhile, Penelope's penchant for quiet observation belies a wide troublemaking streak as she attempts to get under Paul's skin, seemingly out of sport or boredom. A Bigger Splash also features flashbacks to Marianne's full-throated rock star days as she and Harry collaborate, fall in love, and split apart, as well as Harry's fateful decision to introduce his then-friend Paul to Marianne after Harry's wild ways have ruined their relationship. The stakes eventually ratchet up, but it would spoil the film to tell you how.
A Bigger Splash truly belongs to Swinton. Not since Holly Hunter in the Piano has an actress conveyed so much while saying so little. And when Marianne does decide to rasp a few words, you know it's because her feelings are so strong that she's willing to risk her voice and career to make them understood.
But it's the way Swinton's otherworldly presence meshes so perfectly with the character of Marianne that makes Swinton's performance so utterly magnetic -- and something I hope Academy Awards voters remember during Oscars season. Both Swinton and Marianne are iconoclasts in their bones (and bone structure), seemingly more than human while capable of exuding femininity, androgyny, strength, delicacy, glamor, and casualness all in the same moment. With her striking features and statuesque six-foot height, either Swinton or Marianne would stand out in a crowd even if they weren't famous. Add the fact that Swinton is considered a fashion icon in her own right and that all of Marianne's outfits in A Bigger Splash are either custom-made, ready-to-wear, or haute-couture Dior and you have women who would turn heads on the sidewalks of Manhattan or the cobblestones of an island village.
Harry is a terrific foil for Marianne, and it's definitely fun to see Fiennes playing a character so unbridled, profane, and contemporary. While it's hard to know if Paul's comparative lack of charisma has more to do with Schoenaerts, the fact that Paul represents so much of what Harry isn't, or that Schoenaerts shares so much screen time with two Oscar winners, he does a good job of being quietly grumpy about Harry's presence and antics. Of the four main characters, Johnson comes across as the weakest, especially since it's still unclear to me if her talents extend much beyond being fresh-faced and willing to take her clothes off.
But none of that should keep you from seeing A Bigger Splash, which is the kind of intelligent, nuanced, unpredictable drama for adults that often seems to be in short supply in movie theaters these days. And it's further proof that Swinton is one of the most impressive talents working today across all mediums, even when playing a character who could be described the same way.