A Steamy French Thriller Is a ‘Sleeper Smash Hit’

    “It’s vicarious,” Mr. Goldstein said, trying to explain why a 50-year-old French film starring actors who were largely unknown in America, has been such a hit. “It’s a vacation in the south of France that a lot of people can’t take. There’s also the incredible magnetism and chemistry of the two stars, who were real-life lovers.”

    The film is classified as a psychological thriller, but to first-time viewers, very little happens until the very end. “Can you believe there’s another hour of this?” I overhead one older woman marvel to her friend near the halfway mark.

    “A Bigger Splash,” the marvelous 2015 remake starring Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, which Americans may be more familiar with, maintains the broad strokes of the plot, but, as the title suggests, it is much splashier. In that version, the drowning is an accidental crime of passion, far from the cold, calculating murder of “La Piscine”; the dialogue is faster, the cuts sharper, the music louder.

    Watching it now, having done a deep dive (ahem) into the original, made me acutely aware it was the very absence of action, the unapologetic decadence, that kept pulling me back to the theater. This is not a film interested in passing judgment on la belle vie.

    Even as I became more sensitive to the subtleties of the film’s dialogue (“the first swim really takes it out of you,” says Marianne, when Penelope returns from the beach having lost her virginity to Jean-Paul), I remained more interested in simply watching beautiful people do very little. “Tomorrow I will take a long siesta,” Marianne declares, lying on a couch in her bathing suit after a day by the pool. Yes, please.

    That a film so grounded in the gratuitous has resonated in 2021 is perhaps not entirely surprising. After a year in which New York City suffered enormous loss and its residents lived heavily circumscribed lives, it’s understandable we are looking to take our clothes off and have a good time, onscreen and off.

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