In Sex Drama 'A Bigger Splash,' Passion and Jealousy Erupt on a Volcanic Island

A Bigger Splash, a psychosexual thriller by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), offers a garden of earthly delights, with a little murder thrown in.
05/12/2016 11:55 am ET Updated May 13, 2017

A Bigger Splash, a psychosexual thriller by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), offers a garden of earthly delights, with a little murder thrown in. Like Love, the film foregrounds the androgynous magnetism of Tilda Swinton, along with food and the artistry of preparing it, and draws on a stunning sound track ranging from the Rolling Stones, to snippets of opera, to ominous electronic growls. But with Splash the filmmaker moves into new territory to unleash the combustible potential of four hedonists thrown together on a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. At times Splash oscillates uneasily between Euro art film and softcore porn, yet even at its cheesiest the entertainment quotient never flags.

The film is a riff on Jacques Deray's 1969 La Piscine (starring non-pareil beauties Alain Delon and Romy Schneider), and borrows its title, fittingly, from the ejaculatory imagery of one of David Hockney's pool paintings. In Guadagnino's version, rock legend Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating from surgery on her vocal chords on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria with her hottie boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker. Their idyll, which features pool sex and mud baths in herbal springs, is interrupted when Marianne's old flame, flamboyant record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), crashes the scene impromptu. His arrival is amusingly conveyed by the shadow of an incoming jet darkening the couple's naked bodies. Harry has in tow his daughter Penelope, played by Dakota Johnson dragging a wheely bag of pouty sexuality -- and one can only hope that she's next cast as a world-renowned neurosurgeon.

For perverse reasons, Marianne invites the pair to stay at her villa, as Paul smolders with resentment over the intrusion. Equally puzzling is the filmmaker's decision to keep Marianne mute; recovering from throat surgery to extend her singing career, she speaks only rarely in hoarse whispers. (The press notes state that when the character was conceived, Swinton was at "a moment in my life I didn't want to say anything" -- a bit of whimsy that must have infuriated Italian film critics, who harbor some kind of grudge against Guadagnino and booed the film when it bowed last year at Venice).

Know-it-all Harry, an out of control extrovert, immediately seizes the reins, insisting they hit a restaurant tucked away in volcanic furrows known only to insiders. En route he takes a wiz on a grave (when Paul objects, Harry shoots back "all Europe's a grave"). It's soon clear that Harry's true agenda is to repair his break with Marianne, which he considers the great mistake of his life. This despite the fact that a flashback (clunkily inserted) reveals that he himself introduced her to his old buddy Paul. He seems to have brought along Penelope -- a daughter he "discovered" only a year back -- as a consolation prize for Paul. Dakota Johnson, whom you couldn't accuse of subtlety, eyes Paul while draped in suggestive positions like a wolf stalking an antelope. The queenpin of the foursome is Marianne, who muddies the waters by semi-welcoming Harry's come-ons, even as she expresses devotion to Paul. The situation explodes in a collision of male egos baked by the sun to a white heat.

Guadagnino keeps you off balance and the suspense strung tight through staccato scenes elegantly snipped at unexpected moments, and the foursome's candle-lit dinners en plein air, thick with hostile innuendo. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux captures the colors and awesome vistas of Pantelleria, so the island itself becomes a protagonist. Yet at times there's something tonally jarring about Splash, with its blend of tourist porn, barely relatable characters, and an ill-advised reference to the current immigration crisis rocking the island paradise.

Swinton is always mesmerizing, either semi-nude or in designer duds, though it's hard to divine what game she's playing, and equally hard to buy her as a rock star (even if she is the soul sister of David Bowie). As Paul, Matthias Schoenaarts combines masculine magnetism with a hurt soulfulness, but his character is underwritten. The talents of this interesting actor demand a more fleshed out role. Dakota Johnson blurs the line between acting and merely existing.

The real show-stealer here is Ralph Fiennes as hyper Harry, clearly having the time of his life. Yakking nonstop, prancing poolside in the buff, he hijacks the film in an extended bacchanalian dance to the Stones's "Emotional Rescue" that migrates from the house to the bluffs above. He's both hugely annoying and funny as hell. But behind the manic smile -- watch the eyes -- Fiennes captures Harry's desperation and nihilism.

That Paul and Penelope are destined to hook up is a no-brainer. More intriguing is that throughout the film much is made of the outsize sexual appetite of Marianne -- displayed in several scenes -- and almost matched by coked-up Harry. Interestingly, both are played by actors in their fifties. It could be objected that people at that time of life might have preoccupations of a different order. But perhaps, unlike in Hollywood, it takes a European filmmaker to acknowledge that eros prevails across a spectrum of ages.

A version of this post also appears on Ericaabeel.com