Tilda Swinton — perhaps channeling the spirit of David Bowie — plays rock star Marianne Lane in A Bigger Splash, a thriller posing as a vacation posing as a commentary on what happens when two men fix their attentions on the same woman.
That woman, of course, is Swinton’s Marianne, a major star who’s taking a break from the massive stadium shows that have marked her career. Marianne’s voice is shot. She’s recuperating, and fending off any thoughts that her career may have reached its end.
R for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
As a singer with damaged chops, Swinton goes through most of the movie either not talking or allowing whispery scratches to emerge from Marianne’s debilitated vocal cords.
At first, it seems as if A Bigger Splash will be a sensuous idyll. Marianne and her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) have retreated to a volcanic island off the Sicilian coast where they can be left alone. They sun themselves, sans clothing, at their pool and dip into the sensual pleasures of sunny relaxation.
The mood shifts when an uninvited Harry (Ralph Fiennes) turns up. Harry used to be Marianne’s producer and lover. He’s the one who pushed her toward Paul, a documentary filmmaker by trade.
Fiennes gives the movie’s most intriguingly bold performance. Harry’s an ebullient fellow whose every gesture — even the one’s that seem superficially nice — come across as acts of aggression. He doesn’t just fill the refrigerator, he stocks it to the bursting brim.
Under the guise of being honest, he crosses barriers of intimacy that should be respected, not toppled.
As the annoyingly uninhibited Harry, Fiennes — at one point — dances to the Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue. It’s a funny bit, but it’s another instance of Harry’s barely concealed ferocity. He’s all angles, less a guest than an invasion.
Harry is accompanied by his daughter (Dakota Johnson). Johnson’s Penelope seems bored and aloof — and hovers around Paul like a ripe apple that’s waiting to be bitten.
Director Luca Guadagnino, who directed Swinton in 2009’s I Am Love, loosely remakes the 1969 French thriller La Piscine, but you don’t need to know anything about that movie to sense the tension that simmers beneath the movie’s appealing languor.
We wait — and then wait some more — for the eruption that’s bound to come from putting all these folks into the same hot-house environment. The movie’s slow-boil approach won’t be to everyone’s taste.
There are some brief flashbacks that show us the relationship between Harry and Marianne and between Harry and Paul, but most of the movie takes place in the Italian present.
Toward the end, Guadagnino shifts gears, and we’re suddenly in another movie — albeit one that he’s suggested along. Why else the shots of snakes or the agitated thriller-like musical score that seems to contradict the sun-drenched backdrops?
A Bigger Splash tries to stir larger thematic waters than initially seem possible in a movie about a group of people who are accustomed to living in an elite world. I’m not sure that Guadagnino gets quite that far, but along the way, I think, he makes his point: Not all the baggage folks bring on vacation can be stuffed into a suitcase.