Watching the rich enjoying their privileges is one of the pleasures of going to the movies. Suffer if you must, beautiful people, but for God’s sake do it in luxury. A Bigger Splash, the title borrowed from a 1967 David Hockney painting, is a spellbinding erotic dance set on the gorgeous Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. From the best villas, you can even see Tunisia. Everything in this movie is so ripe and voluptuous that watching it doesn’t seem enough, you want to take a bite out of it.
It’s here that rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) has come to rest her vocal chords while lolling around the pool with her hottie boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts), a documentary filmmaker. Enter a lightning bolt called Harry (a volcanically funny Ralph Fiennes), who once served as Marianne’s manager and lover. Harry has brought along Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who looks like his Lolita crush but is really his daughter — a surprise to him as well. The stage is set for a wanton odyssey that moves into mystery and menace.
Director Luca Guadagnino, who brought out the best in Swinton in 2010’s superb I Am Love, again guides her to artful brilliance by metaphorically tying her hands behind her back. By that I mean denying her a voice. Marianne’s throat surgery means she must only observe, except for the occasional hoarse whisper. And Swinton, like the iconic sirens of the silent screen, turns a handicap into a triumph, creating a lifetime of experience in her watchful gaze. You can’t take your eyes off her. Schoenarts suggests hidden depths in this new man in Marianne’s life. And Johnson shows that Penelope has more on her mind than slithering seductively.
Guadagnino, working from a script by David Kajganich based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine (The Swimming Pool), deftly moves beyond luscious surfaces and into the bruised emotions roiling inside. All the actors are at the top of their game. But A Bigger Splash belongs to Fiennes; he’s a tornado in this garden of Eden. This great Shakespearean stage actor has lately let comic mischief seep into his film performances, most notably in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and in Hail, Caesar for the Coen brothers. Fiennes plays Harry as larger than life, tearing off his clothes, dancing like a satyr and lip-syncing to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” — all in the effort to get Marianne back in his thrall. The role is a tour de force for Fiennes and he rips into it like a man possessed without once letting us forget that Harry is vulnerable flesh and blood.
Guadagnino tries for political subtext about refugees being held in detention on the island. It’s the only strain that shows in this carnal hothouse of a movie whose happy hedonists become frighteningly aware of their own moral rot.