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Two movies have opened recently that have as its premise what happens when you welcome guests into one’s home. The basic moral of both is that, well, maybe it’s best not to.
In I Am Love, an earlier film directed by Luca Guadagnino, Tilda Swinton played the wife of a wealthy businessman who finds herself falling in love with the friend of her son. The movie had a small story and in many ways, very little happened plotwise. Still, every scene was filled with tension and suspense that at times was almost unbearable.
In A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino’s new film with Miss Swinton (not to be confused with the 1973 documentary about David Hockney), the plot seems to careen from scene to scene at high speed where a lot seems to happen, but ironically, with almost no sense of tension or suspense.
In the end, it’s a thriller desperately trying to find some thrills, but almost always coming up short.
The story begins with Swinton’s character Marianne, a world renowned singing star whose name alone can get a table at a sold out restaurant, having taken refuge in a remote house on an Italian island because she has had throat surgery and is not supposed to talk for two more weeks (shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona). With her is Matthias Schoenaerts as Paul, her boyfriend, a recovering alcoholic and documentary filmmaker who has lost his way.
They are first discovered lolling naked by a pool in luxurious surroundings of luscious fauna.
For those of you who haven’t caught on, this is, but of course, Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden. And to continue the allegory, a snake soon makes its presence known, both literally, as a whip snake slithers menacingly across a nearby roof, and metaphorically, when Harry, Marianne’s ex-love (Ralph Fiennes) shows up unexpectedly dragging Penelope (Dakato Johnson), a beautiful young woman Harry claims in his daughter, close behind him.
Harry is the kind of character who wreaks destruction in his wake while being full of joie de vivre and a lust for life (as redundant as that sounds) as he encourages all those around him to grab life by the balls and live it to its fullest.
Meanwhile, his daughter is a Lolita of a Lolita.
Will Adam and Eve be able to resist temptation and not eat of the forbidden fruit?|
There’s nothing wrong with the idea. But here, if there is suspense or a sense of menace that slowly builds into a tragic finale, I didn’t feel it. They story just keeps going on and on to no apparent destination or purpose.
That is until Act the Third when finally…finally…something happens and the Garden of Eden is now in serious trouble. But for me, it was a bit too much too late.
And even elements that appear at the end (an LP mysteriously laying on the floor of a swimming pool) that threaten to take the story somewhere, are dropped almost before they begin.
Fiennes is the stand out here, though it’s not that difficult perhaps, seeing as he’s playing a Falstaffian character at 9/10ths the weight. He’s like Zorba the Greek on crack. He’s the sort of character that you can watch on screen, but you would never want to interact with in real life.
But even here, in spite of his larger than life persona and talent, there is no real sexual tension between him and Swinton’s character, so he never really seems a threat.
Shoenhaerts, who normally is a powerhouse of a performer, seems to be struggling with his lines and like the above, there is little tension between his character and Johnson’s as well.
Swinton is perhaps hampered by the fact that she can only occasionally speak, and then only in hoarse whispers. The silence doesn’t really add anything to her role or the plot.
Johnson is perfectly satisfying at her turn at bat.
A Bigger Splash was written by David Kajganich and is based on a story written by Alain Page that served as the basis for the 1969 film La Piscine or The Swimming Pool. There the menace was much more palpable, perhaps because Alain Delon had the lead and smolders his way through the role, while Schoenaerts tends to more mope his way through.
In John Galsworthy’s epic series of novels, The Forsythe Saga, two British couples who have a distant familial relationship to each other are traveling through America. They coincidentally end up in the same hotel at the same time for a brief period. When the wives of the husbands ask whether they should reach out to the others, the husbands both have the same response: If they wanted to meet, I’m sure they would have let us know.
And thus they became, more or less, ships that pass in the night.
This reaction is often a stereotypical attribute of the British persona. But in The One’s Below, if only Theresa, the pregnant wife of Justin, had taken just such an attitude, one her husband shares, and not invited up the new couple downstairs, Kate, who is also pregnant, and Jon, her husband, for dinner, then nothing that follows would have happened.
Sometimes, it’s good to be a stereotype.
For at the end of the above referenced dinner party, Kate trips and has a miscarriage, something the couple blame on Theresa and Justin. But after Kate and Jon return from a retreat to Germany and seemingly forgive and forget everything that happened, odd things begin to take place and Theresa comes to doubt the good intensions of their downstairs friends: but is she being gaslighted or is she having an overly emotional reaction as a result of post mortem hormones and the typical difficulties that come with a new born?
The One’s Below, written and directed by David Farr, who has worked on such fare as Hannah and the new cable TV sensation, The Night Porter (possibly the latter the reason this movie is getting such a wide release), is a perfectly satisfying nasty bit of melodrama.
It’s one of those movie where you know that your neighbors are not to be trusted when a seemingly harmless habit, they take off their shoes and leave them in front of the door of their apartment, seems menacing even before the couple are introduced.
Such a conclusion is not fair, of course; Jon insists on it because he spent years in China. But there’s just something about the way those shoes are always pointing at you when you come upon them, accusingly and without an ounce of sympathy, that gives you goosebumps (it feels like a page torn from an Alfred Hitchcock rule book).
I’m not sure I buy the ending. It requires you to believe that the authorities wouldn’t drag a river for a dead body; and maybe they wouldn’t in such a case, but as of yet, I remain unconvinced.
Still, for a small suspense film that doesn’t really do anything, it does it well enough to keep you pleasantly entertained. It’s one of those films that lets you stay ahead of the game just enough, but not too far at the same time, to have a queasily good time.
With Stephen Campbell Moore and Laura Birn as Justin and Theresa, and Clemency Posey and David Morissey (who glares with the fury of a judgmental God) as Jon and Kate.