With one exception, David Kajganich's script sculpts each of the central quartet out of recognizable quirks and reactions, giving them each strengths and flaws without breaking out any blunt tools. Marianne only rasps out a few words over the course of the film, but Swinton bestows the character with a physical charisma that makes up for her muteness. Wholly believable as a rock goddess, she greets fans kindly, has a sweet shorthand with Paul, and she instills her motions with purpose and grace. Not imperturbable, Guadagnino does a Scorsese-esque slow pan in on her as Harry prattles on, building maximum ire until she spasmodically kicks a coffee cup off the table. Schoenaerts often plays a brute, but his Paul has a patience that I haven't seen him play before, though a patience with a finite reservoir. Kagjanich doesn't give him the jealousy card to play once Harry shows up, as he's confident in his and Marianne's relationship and that would only give Harry the advantage by comparison anyway. He's a stalwart who's happy to put his life on hold to help with hers, where Harry was an ambitious fireball, and the distinction is not lost on Marianne's as she ages into a period of her life that should have less carousing and recklessness. The laggard is Penelope, an inscrutable seductress played lifelessly by Johnson. Guadagnino uses her as a wild card, an unnecessary role when Harry Hawkes is in your deck. Scenes with her are a drain on the considerable life of the film.
That life is most contributed by Fiennes' Harry, arguably his best performance in a distinguished career. Speaking as if perpetually coke-addled, he is a person both exhausting and exhilarating. His loquaciousness flies in the face of Marianne's treatment regimen, but he cannot help himself from asking her question after question. Kajganich writes Harry an indicative scene of the depth of his performative personality, wherein he dives into a pool fully clothed like a spontaneous hedonist, but he remembers to remove his wallet and phone first. His grasping need to be the center of attention would quickly get annoying, but when he delivers on a magic moment, and he delivers several, he makes all that irritation worth it. This is a man who can turn an empty karaoke bar into a packed and raucous house through sheer force of personality and an unwillingness to take no for an answer.
Harry's incessant desire to get what he wants is what brings him to Pantelleria in the first place. He baldly makes a play for Marianne's affections, having the courtesy to not pursue her in front of Paul but otherwise not being shy about his intentions. In flashbacks to his and Marianne's relationship, he's mostly the same person, but past scenes immediately after their breakup show a far more restrained individual. Possibly aiming for the drug-filled nostalgia in their past, Harry thinks the best way he can reconnect with Marianne is by being that guy again, when she prefers Paul's restraint and easier manner. As the romantic battles slowly escalate and pitches are made and considered, the film comes to a climax that it doesn't recover from. The build-up is more compelling than the release and the denouement, and the film is lesser for it.
Johnson's cipher of a black hole of a character and the deflating last twenty minutes are a drag on A Bigger Splash, but Fiennes makes it worth it. While Swinton is a can't-miss actress and Schoenaerts reveals affecting new depths, Fiennes is steamrolling through Guadagnino's film with the vigor of a rambunctious child. The scene that A Bigger Splash will be remembered for finds Harry putting on a record that he helped produce. He begins to dance with a local guest, but she's not enough for him, and he pushes the reset button on his performance by hiding behind a curtain. With grand theatrical flair, he whips it back and boogies outside, heading to a rocky overlook to flail and gesticulate madly for all mankind. Shirt flapping in the wind, Fiennes is going for it with gusto. It takes a talent to steal a film from Tilda Swinton, and Fiennes accepts the challenge. B