In 1969 the Alain Delon potboiler “La Piscine” (“The Swimming Pool”) had a look at beautiful people and sexual jealousy set against the backdrop of the Côte d’Azur. Forty-five years later director Luca Guadagnino makes the story his own, transplanting the characters to a remote island halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, replacing jealousy with desire and setting the whole thing to the slinky beat of The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” “A Bigger Splash” keeps the swimming pool but reinvents the rest of the story.
Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are living a quiet life on the coast of Italy. Very quiet. She is recuperating from surgery and can’t speak. Their tranquil time, however, is shattered by the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Lane’s former record producer and lover, and his Lolita-esque daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). He’s an impulsive first-one-in-the-pool, free spirit who invites strangers over to hang out (“You’re not speaking sweetheart so I had to make other plans!” he says.), she’s a flirty presence who says things like, “My trouble is, I fall in love with every pretty thing.” A day or so into the visit the sunny Mediterranean days take a dark turn as their shared history brings up some ghosts from the past.
“A Bigger Splash” is worth the price of admission just to see Ralph Fiennes, Lord Voldemort himself, strutting his stuff to disco era Rolling Stones. He unleashes some of the goofiest dance moves since Elaine Benes in what must be his loosest performance ever.
Come for the dancing, stay for the bawdy and boisterous atmosphere. The idyllic, sun dappled backdrop plays at odds with the noirish story as Guadagnino brushes his canvas with sexual tension, slowly adding layers to the story as he builds up to a startling climax. It’s a romp, with worldly people, loads of nudity, drugs and drinking, until it isn’t and the time comes to pay the price of living a wild life without regrets. As the characters manipulate one another Guadagnino manipulates the audience with flamboyant filmmaking, unexpected jump cuts and zooms, which demand your attention.
A strong cast—this is Fiennes’s showcase but Schoenaerts anchors the foursome with brooding, if bland work while Johnson smoulders and Swinton pulls off a mostly silent performance with artful facial expressions—holds interest when they are behaving like the entitled folks they are and even more when it starts to crumble.
Playing out in the background are examples of Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis that stand in stark contrast to the lives of luxury lead by the leads. Guadagnino doesn’t make direct commentary on the situation—in fact he doesn’t take a stance on any of the behaviour on display—but instead subtly suggests that we—and the characters, specifically a police inspector—are more interested in the story’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll than the plight of the Tunisian refugees.
“A Bigger Splash” could have swum in the shallow end of the pool, but subtly and interestingly goes off the deep end.