A Bigger Splash takes place on the Italian island of Pantelleria, but the movie looks like it was shot in an alternate universe where the sun is brighter, the water is bluer, the music is louder and everyone exudes a carnal, sultry pull — it’s an open-air hothouse. This is the second collaboration between Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, and it’s a reversal from their previous film, I Am Love. That one took place inside opulent mansions, sported a discordant score by John Adams and had a rigorous, formalist style that reflected the psyche of its heroine, a trophy wife suffocated by her wealthy, orderly life.
In A Bigger Splash, everyone is still gorgeous, the camera still captures scenes from unexpected angles and the images still radiate an unnatural splendor — you want to jump into the screen. But the tone is different, the subject matter more specific and the energy is inverted. I Am Love built to a crescendo of a woman’s spiritual and physical liberation; A Bigger Splash is a gradual sink into a swamp of moral quandaries and ambiguities, an exhilarating, sensual downer.
The premise is simple: The rock star Marianne (Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery and has come to Pantelleria to vacation with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks like Viggo Mortensen’s younger, hunkier brother). Marianne is under doctor’s orders not to speak for two weeks, so the couple spends their time sunbathing nude, having sex and slathering each other’s bodies with sea mud, all things that don’t require much talking.
Then Marianne’s ex, the record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls to say he’s vacationing on the island with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) and could they all get together? Paul acquiesces with furrowed brow. Father and daughter grab spare bedrooms in the mansion the couple was renting. Marianne and Paul’s romantic getaway has become an extended get-together with friends, although they still manage to squeeze in some private sexy time here and there.
But Harry, who seems a little too animated and happy, begins to commandeer the vacation. One day, while the group is chilling indoors, he starts dancing to the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue and becomes so enraptured by the music that he winds up outside, reaching to the sky, gyrating with such wild, spastic energy you wonder if he’s praying to some pagan god. In this scene, as in several others, Fiennes goes so far over the top he comes back around the other end; you have never seen this side (or so much) of him.
His daughter Penelope is the opposite, a cool, observant beauty with cruel eyes who always seems to be working out some kind of plan inside her head. “My trouble is that I fall in love with every pretty thing,” she tells Paul with such disingenuous innocence that you wonder why she didn’t think to be sucking on a lollipop when she said it.
Through quick flashbacks, the movie gives us just enough details to understand the nature of Marianne and Harry’s former relationship, how it contrasts to their current state and why Harry wants her back. Emotional schisms begin to form (the island, we are told, is filled with volcanoes); snakes literally start slithering across the vacation home’s outdoor deck, like serpents in the garden; the TV blares news reports about hungry Tunisian refugees making landfall; a strange tension begins to coil underneath the movie’s ravishing beauty.
A Bigger Splash was inspired by the 1969 French drama La Piscine, in which Alain Delon and Romy Schneider played the vacationing couple. But Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich expand on the original film, pulling the material in different directions. The movie is filled with indelible, throwaway little moments: Harry and his daughter getting a little carried away while singing at a karaoke bar; the world’s creamiest, most appetizing risotto; an anecdote recalling the worst suicide note ever; a car hurtling down a highway at unsafe speed during a rainstorm; a meal at a mountainside restaurant that makes you want to hop on a plane and fly there right now; a police detective (Corrado Guzzanti) pausing his investigation to compliment Marianne on her purse.
In its last half-hour, A Bigger Splash becomes a specific kind of story, and it’s not as pleasurable or strange as what preceded it: It makes you long for the earlier hedonism. But maybe that’s the point. Guadagnino is a bit of a prankster, and even when he’s being dead serious (such as a long overhead shot depicting some suspenseful business that stretches on without cutting away, making you catch your breath), he’s showing off, too. Guadagnino is preparing to direct a remake of Suspiria as his next project (Swinton and Johnson are on board to star), and that may well turn out to be his masterpiece, a delirious horror movie wild enough to accommodate his lavish, outsized vision. He is a filmmaker incapable of crafting a boring shot, and he has a devilish sense of humor, too. He casts Swinton, one of the best actors on the planet, in his film and then barely lets her speak. When she does, it’s mostly in raspy croaks — except for a moment in which she has to scream.
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson, Corrado Guzzanti.
Director: Luca Guadagnino.
Screenwriter: David Kajganich.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 125 minutes. Vulgar language, frontal nudity, explicit sex, brief violence, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset Place, Cinepolis Grove; in Broward: Gateway, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.