On one level – say, the deep end of a swimming pool in a villa on a volcanic isle – “A Bigger Splash” is the art film version of a houseguest-from-hell horror story.
Loud, impossibly exuberant record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) arrives uninvited to an idyllic Mediterranean retreat. The couple lolling there, skinny-dipping, loving and dining on mouthwatering country cuisine – have been living in splendid isolation. That’s the setup for Luca Guadagnino’s sunbaked, slow-burning mystery.
She is Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock star on a Bowie-esque scale (with a bit of Bowie’s androgyny and glam). Marianne has taken a vow of silence – not for any spiritual purpose, but because her singing voice is completely shot. Her companion is Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a filmmaker, a sturdy, nurturing fellow who carries himself as if he were almost unaware of how ridiculously handsome he is.
She reads. (James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” – take note.) He works on his laptop. They go for walks along the craggy paths down to the inlets and tiny lakes of Pantelleria, a cinemagenic island southwest of Sicily.
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And then, boom! Harry, who was once Marianne’s lover and who had long ago introduced Paul to Marianne, is upon them. He arrives with Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who he announces is his recently discovered daughter from America. She makes a point of telling Marianne that she is 22, although she acts more like Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita.”
Harry and Penelope make themselves at home. He even invites some acquaintances over for drinks by the pool, entertaining everyone with stories about the Rolling Stones – whose records he worked on. Then he goes into a wild dancing frenzy, singing along to Mick and Keith’s “Emotional Rescue.” You may want to kill the guy.
In fact, “A Bigger Splash” is a remake of a 1969 French thriller, “La Piscine” (“The Swimming Pool”), which starred Alain Delon and Romy Schneider as the couple with the beautiful house on the Mediterranean, and Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin as the interlopers, Harry and Penelope.
Guadagnino, who directed Swinton in the 2009 Italian gem “I Am Love,” has kept the core premise – and the sensuality – of Jacques Deray’s original.
But Guadagnino brings the story into the 21st century, where even the residents of a remote isle in the Straits of Sicily know enough about celebrity to go gaga – whipping out their smartphones – when Marianne ventures into the village, joining Harry for a late-night dance at a karaoke bar. And where boatloads of Tunisian refugees arrive, stalking the island, frightened and hungry.
A tale of love and jealousy, obsession and seduction, “A Bigger Splash” takes its time getting where it’s actually going (another principal role is that of the local police chief), but that’s all right. There’s so much gorgeous scenery to take in, so many gorgeous bodies and clothes, although Swinton’s wardrobe is perhaps too haute for the rustic surroundings. Why hurry?
Even the island’s Carabinieri inspector (Corrado Guzzanti) stops his interrogation to admire one of Marianne’s fashion accessories, a designer sack in the most supple of leathers.
“What a beautiful bag,” he says to her.
‘A Bigger Splash’
Rated: R for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson
Directed by: Luca Guadadgnino