Never one to betray the courage of his convictions, Luca Guadagnino excels at the unrepentantly grandiose and ludicrous. The title alone of his previous narrative feature, I Am Love (2009), signaled operatic sweep and loony sincerity, qualities further exalted by the film’s visual ravishments and seductive voluptuousness. The Italian director’s latest, A Bigger Splash, also abounds in sybaritic delights, though here the hedonism awkwardly cedes to a misguided attempt at topical relevance.
A loose remake of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), A Bigger Splash follows the original’s febrile love quadrangle, yet ditches the Côte d’Azur setting for Pantelleria, a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. The Mediterranean haven is where Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) — a rock divinity who favored Aladdin Sane maquillage — has decamped after vocal-cord surgery, adoringly cared for by her documentary-filmmaker boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). The couple’s blissful summertime isolation, replete with carnal aqua-cising in their swimming pool and mud-bath languor, is interrupted by the arrival of garrulous, showboating Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former lover and producer, and his taciturn, smoldering 22-year-old daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Dyads dissolve and reassemble; unholy alliances are strongly suggested; unholier acts are committed; all members of the comely intergenerational cast frequently bare all.
Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich acknowledge just how overripe this scenario is by including several references to decay. Marianne’s beachside reading is James Agee’s A Death in the Family; one of her albums is titled Dead Revolution. Most tellingly, Harry, his fly halfway unzipped, counters Paul’s exhortation not to desecrate the tombs he’s about to piss on with the flippant observation “Yeah, well, Europe’s a grave.” A Bigger Splash — a title borrowed from David Hockney’s 1967 Pop-art painting dominated by a sleek California residential pool, similar to the one owned by Marianne and Paul — is decadent in both senses of the word, charting not only decline (of relationships, of the Continent) but also the appetites and delectations of the central foursome.
This double meaning also animated I Am Love, in which Swinton’s Emma Recchi, the unhappy Russian wife of a Milanese industrialist and the mother of three adult children, liberates herself from uxorial enslavement and old-world patriarchy by falling in love with a younger chef who seduces her with a plate of prawns and ratatouille. The tall, translucent actress, who began her career three decades ago as the muse of British New Queer Cinema pioneer Derek Jarman, has turned in a series a scenery-chomping, often prosthetically enhanced supporting performances in the past few years (Snowpiercer, The Grand Budapest Hotel), roles that come perilously close to clowning. But in her two feature-length collaborations to date with Guadagnino, Swinton shows just how good she can be in a quieter register. In both I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, in fact, her characters are defined by linguistic impasses: Non-native Italian speaker Emma appeared nearly aphasic at Recchi family gatherings; now, following doctor’s orders, post-op Marianne either stays mute or speaks no louder than a whisper.
But that silence does not equal restraint. A Bigger Splash, like its predecessor, gluts the viewer with sights and sounds: Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who also shot I Am Love, favors lens flares and bizarre, borderline grotesque extreme close-ups, fleetingly filling the screen with Harry’s always-yammering mouth, or with the innards of the fish he’s preparing for dinner. Never still, wolfish music man Harry awkwardly jerks and twerks to “Emotional Rescue,” the Rolling Stones’ quasi-disco hit from 1980 playing almost in its entirety as he dances with himself.
The other principals display their lack of inhibition more stealthily. When not directing outrageous passive-aggressive comments at her hostess (“You can’t talk or won’t? Cancer? Oh, right, your career”), Penelope subtly strokes her bare stomach to attract the attention of her host — a gesture that Johnson imbues with more erotic heat than any of the blindfolded and spread-eagled abandon she had to simulate in Fifty Shades of Grey. Recently rehabbed Paul seems to have conquered his most self-destructive urges, though his ravenousness for Marianne hasn’t abated even after six years together; Schoenaerts, whose breakthrough roles in Bullhead (2011) and Rust and Bone (2012) both featured him as a monosyllabic brute, here makes an excellent helpmeet and nonpareil lady-pleaser.
All this wanton behavior sparks such giddy pleasure that the film’s tonal shift after one of the quartet exits the action feels especially deflating. Guadagnino inserts a plot thread indicting Europe's response to the migrant crisis, shoehorning an issue of utmost gravity into a pulpy sex thriller. Not even this flamboyant project, however satisfying in its excesses otherwise, can accommodate the inept civics lesson.