During one of the first decadent Italian meals in “A Bigger Splash,” Harry (Ralph Fiennes) cracks open the thick salt crust baked onto a fish to reveal the delicate flesh below. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the film itself, which is a cinematic feast for the eyes and senses, where everyone’s concealing a secret or a vulnerability from those around them, trying desperately to maintain their protective exterior. The characters have different approaches to this, but the film bubbles with a simmering tension that eventually comes to a full, roiling boil.
“A Bigger Splash,” directed by Luca Guadagnino, his fourth collaboration with Tilda Swinton, with a screenplay by David Kajganich, is a remake of the 1969 French film “La Piscine,” (“The Swimming Pool”), starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin. Kajganich and Guadagnino have maintained the main premise of the story — a couple’s vacation is invaded by an old friend and his daughter — but have extrapolated and modernized the characters.
Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a massive international Bowie-esque rock star, recuperating from vocal chord surgery on the volcanic Italian island of Pantelleria with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). “A Bigger Splash” is a serene, sunbaked and near-silent period of rest, that is until Harry, a record producer and old flame, comes barreling into their lives, a whirling dervish of party energy and nonstop chatter. He has a new lady in his life in tow — a young woman, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), a daughter with whom he has recently connected.
Marianne’s inability to speak makes for an interesting dynamic within the group. Paul is her protector and her voice, while Harry scoffs at the vow of silence, and uses it to overstep his boundaries, filling in the blanks with his own cacophonous persona. Penelope is all Mona Lisa smiles and suggestive statements, whiling her way into the group and dividing it up using her body and sex appeal.
Guadagnino, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and editor Walter Fasano craft an audacious cinematic style that feels at once boldly retro and thoroughly modern. Le Saux’s camera pushes in on characters’ faces, while Fasano rapidly cuts between their points of view in a style that contributes to the rising pressure of the dynamic at the vacation home. It’s an ostentatious style of cinematography and editing, but the gorgeous location, lighting and colors keep it grounded within the setting of this unique island, stationed between Tunisia and Sicily.
There’s much to consider and mull in “A Bigger Splash,” from Harry’s manic exertions at reuniting with Marianne to Swinton’s almost entirely physical performance as the singer torn between two men. There’s the recent past of Paul, which is spoken about only in roundabout. There’s the mysterious, enigmatic Penelope, leading with her sex appeal with everyone she encounters, including her father.
There are many secrets lurking below the surface of “A Bigger Splash,” expertly expressed through the performances of the quartet of Swinton, Fiennes, Schoenaerts and Johnson. But the surface itself is so appealing that you’ll just want to float around there for a while, soaking in the blast of energy from the kooky, sexy, rollicking and eventually quite dark, romp through a sun-sizzled Sicilian vacation. Jump on in — the water’s fine, but swim at your own risk.
A Bigger Splash
☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson.
Director: Luca Guadadgnino.
Running time: 2:04.
Rated: R, for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use.