A Bigger Splash, directed by Luca Guadagnino, 2 h 4 min
Marianne, played with a shimmering élan by Tilda Swinton, is an international rock star, a female David Bowie (or maybe a glam Patti Smith), replete with a glistening unitard. She and her boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), have gone to the island of Pantelleria off the southwest coast of Sicily so she can recover from throat surgery.
As they cover themselves in mud to bake on a deserted beach, their idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Marianne’s former record producer and lover, Harry. He is played with energy and gusto by Ralph Fiennes - and I guarantee you will see more of him than you ever have before! In tow is a pretty, sly blonde who they first mistake for his girl friend before he introduces her as his 22 year-old daughter they never knew he had.
Father and daughter create chaos in what was supposed to be this quiet recovery time for Marianne. She is not supposed to speak, but Harry continually baits her into talking. Daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) lurks seductively in the background, touching herself boldly and inappropriately. Johnson makes her a callous Lolita. She may be a better actress than I give her credit for, but I suspect this privileged daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson may not have had to work too hard to strike this enticing pose.
Harry loves to trade on Marianne’s celebrity to wow the natives. As he exuberantly tells anyone who will listen, he also produced Voodoo Lounge, one of the Rolling Stones’s later albums. “Emotional Rescue” plays appropriately throughout. He met Paul when he was photographing Marianne, and they collaborated on a documentary about her. At some point Marianne grew tired of Harry and picked up with Paul.
What we have is a most unusual love quadrangle with Harry at its center, magnetically attracted to the other three. He openly tries to rekindle his relationship with Marianne. Then there is a lusty karaoke duet with Penelope that hints at incest, delighting the islanders. Marianne and Paul are suitably appalled, but Marianne’s eyes betray a hint of jealousy. You even sense Harry’s attraction to Paul simmering below the surface. Most obviously, the louche Penelope has been attempting to seduce Paul from the start. It’s easy to see from the nasty, knowing look in her eye that she will get what she wants and doesn’t care about the consequences.
The weather forecast is for a sirocco to blow in from the nearby African coast, and you know trouble is coming. At this point the the film seems intriguing but pointless. It’s a long set-up, but a trip to town by Marianne and Harry and a hike by Penelope and Paul leads to inevitable confrontations and an unexpected, but satisfying denouement.
There is so much to like in this movie. The cinematography captures the lush beauty of the island and the luxury of the villa, but all of the beauty is on the surface; beneath it is a roiling debauchery. The story creates provocative and subtle questions, and it’s to the credit of the writers and director that there are no simple answers. Many are even left unresolved.
The cast is delightfully sensual. Fiennes plays Harry with the bravado of a 21st century Tom Jones; Schoenaerts has the beauty of an earthly Apollo; Dakota Johnson is a natural seductress.
But it is Tilde Swinton that has the most difficult, and successful, role. At first she communicates with only her hands, then in a hoarse whisper. Her slitted eyes are surprisingly expressive, darting and widening to convey surprise, delight, fear, understanding. You can’t take your eyes off her, as she slithers through each scene, captivating and mysterious. Swinton has a chameleon-like ability to inhabit an ever widening variety of roles, that makes her one of the top actresses of the day, not as acclaimed, but certainly the equal of La Streep.
You will delight in this sensuous, engaging film. And you will keep replaying scenes to try to answer those lingering questions. Two quotes from the movie best capture what you can expect from A Bigger Splash:
Harry: “We are all obscene.”
A villager: “You’re such nice people.”
The Man Who Knew Infinity, directed by Matthew Brown, 1 h 48 min
The Man Who Knew Infinity is a beautiful, intimate movie. It’s not giving away too much to say it’s sad and triumphant, all at once.
Srinivasa Ramanujan is a math prodigy scribbling his theorems in the dust of the streets of Madras in Colonial India. He is played by Dev Patel with the excellence we have come to expect from him, but this time in a more serious role. Unable to find a job that can utilize his exceptional talents, Ramanujan is eventually mentored by an older Indian bureaucrat who finds him a civil service accounting job.
Ramanujan continues to fill notebooks with abstract mathematical formulas, and his originality finally percolates up to a math professor at Trinity College, Cambridge. G. H. Hardy doubts its veracity, but is curious enough to bring Ram to England. Hardy is played by Jeremy Irons, the perfect early 20th-century Oxbridge don.
Both professor and student run into seemingly insurmountable problems. Derided as a “Wog,” Ram is shunned and beaten by his bigoted classmates. The faculty is not much better, unable to believe that a mere Indian is the author of such sophisticated work, or even that his formulas are of any consequence.
Hardy comes to believe that Ram is brilliant and genuine, but he insists Ram give him proofs of his theorems. Ram resists but eventually realizes he will never be taken seriously unless he produces the verification Hardy wants.
Ram doesn't live only in the ethereal world of higher mathematics. He has left behind a young wife in Madras, and is devastated when he doesn't hear from her. His devious mother disapproves of their marriage and has hidden his letters from her. Then Ram develops a cough, which he assumes is explained by his move from his sub-tropical life in India to cold, damp England. When he coughs up blood, he knows it’s more serious.
Watching Ram and Hardy struggle against the Establishment of that day is illuminating. It gives the lie to any British holier-than-thou attitude towards America’s admittedly appalling racial record. You are moved by Ram’s persistence and triumph over these biases, even as we watch his health and personal life crumble.
The one maybe insurmountable problem of the film is Ram’s oft-stated assertion of the beauty of pure mathematics. This concept is merely declared, not demonstrated. Maybe it is impossible to explain such an abstraction to lay people, but the film should at least “give it a go,” as the Brits might say. The coda tells us that Ram’s work is still being used to study black holes, but that doesn't really help since we don’t understand them either, other than their utility as metaphor.
But the beauty of the filming and the strong performances by Patel and Irons make the The Man Who Knew Infinity worth seeing. Just don’t expect it to be as compelling as The Imitation Game.