Inspired by classic European cinema (specifically, La Piscine) and borrowing its title from a David Hockney painting, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is simultaneously gorgeous and silly. Reuniting with Tilda Swinton, following 2009’s stellar I Am Love, Guadagnino takes on the kind of laissez faire erotic thriller we rarely get to see anymore, and for the most part, he delivers on it. Swinton, playing a rock star sidelined by throat surgery and thus rendered mostly mute, is joined by Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, and Belgian breakout Matthias Schoenaerts, for an exquisitely designed production shot on location on Pantelleria Island in Sicily. It’s all sun-soaked vistas and sex on the beach and snakes.
Swinton is as Swinton always is—utterly believable and commanding, even when silent. She plays Marianne Lane, a Bowie-ish rocker who goes to Pantelleria to recuperate after throat surgery, accompanied by her younger lover, Paul (Schoenaerts). They’re a beautiful couple who are still, several years in, totally absorbed with one another. There’s an undercurrent of shared survival, too, as Paul is a recovering alcoholic and Marianne is leaning on him to support her as she tries to save her career. The only suggestion of Marianne’s age is this surgery, meant to preserve her voice for a few more years of singing. Otherwise, Swinton is an alien and unaged as ever.
But the idyll can’t last, as signaled by a snake slithering across a luxury pool patio. That’s a little on the nose, and Guadagnino seems a little looser, maybe even sloppier here than he was with I Am Love. Working again with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, the visuals are stunning, but there are a few more of those really obvious shots—you don’t have to know La Piscine to get that the pool is Bad News, given the way it looms in the frame, like it’s stalking victims—and the jittery pacing of some of the editing is at odds with the languorous and sumptuous tone of the film.
Marianne and Paul are soon enough joined by Harry (Fiennes), Marianne’s record producer and former lover, who introduced her to Paul. Harry is accompanied by his newly-discovered daughter, Penelope (Johnson), a passive-aggressive brat who openly tries to seduce Paul. Johnson is far, far sexier here than she is in Fifty Shades of Grey, and Splash makes much better use of her natural charm on camera. Penelope is an awful person, but there’s enough charisma in Johnson’s performance to suggest that once she grows up a little, she’ll be one of those fascinating awful types you can’t stand to be around but also don’t want to miss what they do next.
Harry is exactly that type, a loud-mouth braggart retelling the same old stories, but he’s so entertaining that he sells it on charm alone. Fiennes is tremendous, giving an exuberant performance not similar to but recalling his work in In Bruges—you don’t expect this type of performance from him, but he’s got a lot of gas in the tank in for it. There’s a wonderful scene of Harry dancing to a Rolling Stones song while the camera pans around the room, watching the others watch Harry, and Marianne’s genuine enjoyment of her old friend’s enthusiasm is infectious.
Where Splash falls down a little is mostly in the finale, but also in a subplot about refugees from Tunisia pouring into Pantelleria. Not to sound callous, because the refugee crisis in Europe is a very real, serious issue, but that’s exactly the kind of thing that doesn’t belong in a summer sex thriller. It’s jarring and out of place. There are other, subtler ways to suggest the enormous, frankly insurmountable divide between the rarified lives of people like Marianne and refugees. The increasingly bad weather in Pantelleria basically does the same job, on a metaphorical level.
And the ending doesn’t quite gel, coming off more silly than thrilling. It’s well telegraphed by the time it arrives, so any sense of shock is non-existent, and the jumpy editing and sometimes bizarre shot selection make the whole thing unintentionally funny. I think Guadagnino was aiming for farce, but the rest of the movie—which runs a slightly overlong two hours—isn’t farcical, so the tonal shift comes from nowhere. And then he overshoots the mark anyway, so A Bigger Splash ends up being less of a splash and more of a dull thump. But it’s worth it anyways, for the performances, the vistas, the Swinton, and the unabashed, grown-up treatment of sex on film. We don’t get many movies like this anymore, and we should enjoy them when we get them.
Attached - Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino promoting A Bigger Splash at the Apple Store in NYC in April.