Isolating four people in a house and having them seek out each other’s psychological vulnerabilities is the basis of countless plays and films, but director Luca Guadagnino, making his long-awaited follow-up to his 2009 masterpiece “I Am Love,” knows how to delight the senses even as he toys with the souls of his characters. While it’s not the consistent triumph of his previous film, “A Bigger Splash” nonetheless showcases a quartet of extraordinary actors while consistently tantalizing audiences with the prospect of surprising new developments.
A remake of the French thriller “La piscine” (and named for David Hockney’s famous painting), “A Bigger Splash” reunites Guadagnino with Tilda Swinton, who stars as Marianne, a legendary rock star on vocal rest, nursing her larynx back to health on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria, accompanied by her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a photographer and documentary filmmaker.
Their passionate idyll – when they’re not having sex in the pool, they’re slathering volcanic mud on each other in a lake – is disrupted by the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who’s accompanied by Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the daughter whom he’s only recently met. (Everyone assumes she’s his latest girlfriend, much to Harry’s delight.)
The loud, brash Harry turns out to have played a key role in his hosts’ lives: he not only managed Marianne’s career but was her lover for six years, and after they broke up he set her up with Paul. As Harry begins his inappropriate dance of intimacy around Marianne, Penelope nymphets her way around the pool and around Paul; when the men and the women are on their own, other mind games play out and other secrets from the past are revealed, even as the island celebrates the feast of San Gennaro and buckles down for the impending Sirocco. (That sandy wind blowing in from the Sahara counts as a Chekhov’s gun, mentioned early in the proceedings and then delivered in the third act.)
Guadagnino’s directorial touch is never overly heavy-handed, but it lets you know that there’s a capable craftsman behind the camera, jolting us into and out of reality in particular moments. The first time that Harry dives into the pool, for instance, we never hear the expected splash, with the soundtrack instead going silent, offering us Harry’s underwater point-of-hearing. A flashback involving Marianne’s band has the drummer suddenly speeding up the tempo to match up with a modern-day sequence scored to Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire.” And if you loved “I Am Love” for the food, there are some moments involving the creation of daiquiris and ricotta cheese (separately, thank goodness) that will capture your attention.
“A Bigger Splash” isn’t just about what the director (working from a script by David Kajganich) brings to the table, however; the actors all stand out as well. Fiennes tears into the material with the gusto that Ben Kingsley brought to another beachside drama, “Sexy Beast”; whether he’s lip-synching the Rolling Stones (complete with moves like Jagger’s), shedding his clothes to go swimming or impersonating Terry Gilliam‘s bridge-keeper from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Fiennes is clearly having a blast mining this crass, brash character for every last ounce of exuberant vulgarity.
After being done few favors in the ludicrous “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Dakota Johnson has the opportunity to explore a sexual character who isn’t a cartoon, while Schoenaerts (also in Venice with “The Danish Girl,” in which he has little to do) slowly uncovers layers of complication beneath a sturdy surface.
And if there’s an actor in contemporary cinema who doesn’t need dialogue to make an impression, it’s Swinton; her character’s relative silence throughout the film only accentuates the formidable bearing she has on camera. Earthy, sensual and damaged, her Marianne is a memorable and haunting creation. (And who but Swinton could pull off the Blade-Runner-meets-Velvet Goldmine rocker get-up created for her by Christian Dior’s Raf Simons?)
“A Bigger Splash,” which Fox Searchlight will release in the U.S. next May, doesn’t entirely hold up; there’s a First World imperialism subplot about Tunisian refugees on the island that feels tacked-on, and the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang. Even so, it’s a lush and intriguing experience that works so well for so long that it can’t be undone by a few flaws.