Four emotionally unbalanced people with raging libidos and seamy secrets collide in Luca Guadagnino’s volcanic, sumptuous A Bigger Splash. The movie takes place on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria, a picturesque setting that reeks of original sin: a nubile coquette nibbles on green fruit and frolics nude on wet, jagged rocks; snakes slither and eavesdrop on handsome vacationers as they sip on daiquiris in a feeble attempt to calm their crumbling nerves.
Guadagnino relishes reducing the souls of his protags to dust via slow burn, much like he did in his sensational 2009 offering I Am Love. The slender star of that film, Tilda Swinton, returns here with a measured, largely silent performance that anchors the movie from square one. She plays Marianne, a former rock star staying in Pantelleria on a sort of rehab getaway for her damaged larynx. “No talking,” insists her gentle, dutiful lover Paul (the always-striking Matthias Schoenaerts). No need for words; the couple have no issue exercising their passion physically whenever and wherever they want (in the pool, the bathroom, by a lake–they cover all bases).
Marianne and Paul’s sunny holiday is thrown out of whack with the arrival of an old friend, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his soft-skinned daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry’s a wild one, a gregarious party monster who can’t stop talking and acts on his primal urges without a moment’s hesitation. You never know what he’ll do next; he’ll throw on vinyl and break out ‘60s dance moves (psychedelic convulsions?) one moment and dive naked into the pool the next. Marianne loves him to bits, Paul struggles to tolerate him, and Penelope shares with him a curiously touchy-feely father-daughter relationship.
Left and right, the four villa-mates exchange suggestive glances (Guadagnino handles these with startling deftness), each alluding to a hidden history between the characters that’s revealed via fleeting flashbacks triggered by quick shifts in mood. We learn Harry used to be Marianne’s manager/lover and is the one who introduced her and Paul in the first place. Even juicier, Harry has only just met Penelope a year ago, which in a twisted way explains their flirtatious rapport. Ever so slowly, like a pot of stew bubbling on the fire, the characters torture each other with seductive teases and thinly-veiled snipes.
There’s a spellbinding quality to the fashion in which the story unfolds. The pace is leisurely, and yet there’s propulsion in the fact that there’s no telling at any moment what is going to happen next. The film is a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, and Guadagnino, working from a script by David Kajganich, invokes the touristic, leisurely charm of similar films from the era (Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee comes to mind) while keeping things modern and fresh with his polished visual stylings and unreal attention to detail. As with I Am Love, every shot here feels elegant and deliberate, with sequences like Fiennes’ solo dance number feeling simultaneously spontaneous and impeccably staged.
And who could have asked for a better Harry than the one Fiennes gifts us with? He’s part Austin Powers, part David Brent for most of the time, and he’s hilarious, but on top of that he explores layer upon layer of richness as Harry’s walls come down and his longing for Marianne consumes him. Swinton’s a gem as usual, but there’s a particular joy in seeing her tackle such a physical role in which she’s barely allowed to whisper. Johnson and Schoenaerts round out the ensemble nicely, though neither of them is as spellbinding as their aforementioned co-stars.
Finesse seems to be the going concern when it comes to Guadagnino’s directorial approach. He captures the performers at their very best and photographs each step of the four-way devil’s dance with distinct sensuality (the curve of Marianne’s neck speaks volumes; an extreme close-up of hands gutting a fish suggests impending danger). It’s provocative, chilling, often breathtaking stuff, and few filmmakers today share the lauded Italian director’s gift.
“We’re all obscene,” Harry wails in the film’s most pivotal scene, reflecting on the jumbled mess he and his friends have made of their lives. There’s more than a tinge of insanity to the insular world of the wealthy, but the plot goes just a bit too far off the deep end in its startlingly macabre third act, which shifts in tone too aggressively and shoves the characters into somewhat unbelievable states of mind. It’s after this paradigm shift that the movie begins to overstay its welcome, though the credits roll just before any serious damage is done to the overall experience. While not the masterpiece I Am Love was, A Bigger Splash is nevertheless a shining exhibition of four wonderful actors and a filmmaker who’s as vital as can be.