In A Bigger Splash (the title comes from David Hockney’s pop art painting), Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, a rock star recovering from throat surgery. She retreats, along with her lover, Paul, to the remote Italian island of Pantelleria. Ensconced in a spacious villa high above the sea, the two spend languid days making love and lying on the beach. Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) gently cares for Marianne, knowing that she must not talk if she is to heal. Their solitude is disrupted, however, when Marianne’s former lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes on speed), arrives for an extended visit with his daughter, Penny (Dakota Johnson). Soon the quiet villa is filled with Harry’s outsized personality and boisterous voice and the island paradise is crackling with sexual tension. Pantelleria is a volcanic island, but when the eruption comes, it will be man made.
Frequent flashbacks fill in the history linking the three main characters. Marianne, it seems, is a megastar. Harry, a record producer who claims to have influenced the Rolling Stones, is seen in a recording studio working with Marianne, although how much he was responsible for her success is left unsaid. Appearing in a huge venue teeming with loyal fans, Marianne, with her makeup and costume, resembles David Bowie. We now understand what’s at risk with her recovery and why Paul is being so protective. (References are made to Julie Andrews who lost her singing voice.)
After their breakup, Harry introduced Marianne to Paul, a photographer and a recovering alcoholic. Paul is the strong and dependable presence in Marianne’s life. Where Harry sowed chaos, Paul brings calm. Now it seems that Harry is having second thoughts and this trip to Pantelleria is an assault to win Marianne back. Harry comes equipped for the battle, tempting Paul with bottles of fine wine and his Lolita-like daughter. Harry admits that he just became aware of Penny’s existence, while she claims not to be convinced he’s her father. The interaction between Harry and Penny, their too close embraces and amorous gazes, are discomforting.
From the moment Harry’s flight lands (the shadow of the plane ominously passes over the prone figures of Marianne and Paul on the beach), he begins to dictate the action. He knows this island (we never really learn how), and plans everything, from a dinner at a nearly inaccessible restaurant located on a steep hill, to a karaoke night in a local bar where he keeps pushing Marianne to join in singing. Is he wooing Marianne back or trying to destroy her career? Maybe both?
While Marianne whispers that she’s not leaving Paul, she’s not pushing Harry away, either. Harry’s aggressiveness makes him hard to dismiss and his reminiscing about times past, when Marianne’s career was soaring and they were both high on coke, brings home that those days may not come again. While the pair tours around Pantelleria (even visiting a woman who makes ricotta in her kitchen), Paul and Penny take a long hike to a remote part of the island. Penny quickly discards her clothing and stretches out on the rocks in a not too subtle invitation to Paul. Unlike the sexual novice she played in 50 Shades of Gray, Johnson’s Penny is the provocateur, saving her best surprise for last.
A Bigger Splash is Tilda Swinton’s second collaboration with Italian Director Luca Guadagnino, the first I Am Love, a 2009 Italian film where she played a married woman who has an affair with a chef. (The scene where she swoons after eating a prawn dish he prepared for her is priceless.) it’s easy to see Guadagnino’s fascination (actually any director’s fascination) with Swinton. She’s like a blank canvas, able to transform herself not only from film to film but from scene to scene. In A Bigger Splash, she’s a chameleon, appearing androgynous in the role of a rock star and incredibly sexy in her scenes with Fiennes and Schoenaerts. Marooned on the island, stripped of her music persona and unable to speak, she remains a potent force, the center of the battle between the two men. She manages to convey a stunning array of emotions with her facial expressions and body language.
As Harry, Fiennes literally throws himself into the role, holding back nothing whether challenging Paul to a race in the pool or exhibiting manic dance moves to a Rolling Stone’s tune. Fiennes seems to be having a good time playing larger than life characters like his Monsieur Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Unlike the well-meaning Gustave, however, his Harry carries a menacing undertone, his exuberance masking a desperation, a sexual hunger that threatens to turn violent. The film’s tension is ratcheted up with the soundtrack, the loud electronic music at times almost unbearable.
One of the most powerful characters in the film is the island itself. Notwithstanding Marianne’s luxurious villa, Pantelleria’s rugged and bleak landscape shouts despair and loneliness, echoed by the many refugees washing up on shore, a tragic counterpoint to what is playing out in Marianne’s villa.
A Bigger Splash opens nationwide on May 13, 2016.