Tilda Swinton is a cinematic treasure. Her roles include an androgynous archangel, a sexy vampire, and everything in between. In Luca Guadagnino’s melodrama A Bigger Splash, she plays a rock star, which makes begs the question, “Why didn’t she play one earlier?” The answer is ultimately immaterial, as Swinton eases into the role with effortless grace. This marks her second collaboration with Guadagnino – the first was I Am Love where she played a Russian-Italian matriarch – and again Guadagnino’s taste for sensuous intrigue means the film is a pleasure to behold. There is also something deeper, an exploration of vulgarity, celebrity, and what it means to consecrate youth always. And since there are few surprises, the film’s trajectory toward the inevitable feels operatic.
Pantelleria is a small island that’s about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. It’s also where most of the film takes place: Swinton plays Marianne, a glamorous David Bowie-type who’s convalescing in her villa with her longtime filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Years of touring have taken their toll on Marianne’s voice, so she avoids speaking, save the occasional husky whisper. She and Paul pass the time by fucking and visiting the beaches nearby, at least until Marianne’s ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) drops in. Harry is not alone – he brought his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) – and of course Marianne tries to accommodate them. Harry is a record producer, the sort of blowhard who feels like peace is an early invitation of death. Furtive glances gives way, as they must, to simmering tension and outright hostility.
Working from a script by David Kajganich, Guadagnino achieves a specific sense of place through a lived-in, serene approach to sexuality. We see all four main characters naked, and the point is that their bodies are part of the atmosphere, not the plot. There is unforced naturalism to the first languid scenes with Marianne and Paul: they enjoy their bodies wordlessly, so we buy them as lovers. Harry’s intrusion is therefore all the more unwelcome, and the forced conversation stands in contrast to the silent holiday before his arrival. Fiennes has more lines than any other actor, and he plays Harry like a charasmatic, buffoonish shithead. There is a strange, magnetic scene where Harry forces a dance party with records that he produced, and there are daggers in everyone’s else until, finally, they have fun in spite of themselves. Fiennes’ mix of obscenity and charm is masterful.
A Bigger Splash is a long film, at least for one with so few characters, and the running time gives the characters to show their essential natures. There is also enough time for us to see all possible pairings between the four leads, and what they represent. Celebrity is acknowledged, though rarely discussed: Marianne does not want special attention, but does not complain when she gets it, anyway. Still, the most powerful force in A Bigger Splash is youth, and how we always gravitate to it. The strong/silent Paul is more comfortable with his age than Penelope, who is still learning how far she can use her beauty to bend others to her will. Guadagnino and Kajganich take their time to show how youth can be a catalyst for jealousy, and it sneaks into A Bigger Splash like a snake.
The camera provides commentary, adding a sense of menace to the action. The shots feel claustrophobic, even during a picaresque hike, so we feel the silence between the characters (the yellow-tinted cinematography strikes a balance between warm and oppressive). Kajganich’s script juggles these dramatic points alongside fleeting moments of comfort. The turning point in A Bigger Splash is when Harry and others find themselves at a karaoke bar: we see Marianne relish the spotlight – Swinton has Jagger-like charisma – and the camera also needles at Paul’s disappointment. Here and elsewhere the drama goes one way, only to flip another way on a dime, and it is to everyone’s credit that these shifts are always natural. If parts of A Bigger Splash are a lazy hang-out movie, the sort that lets us decide our favorites, then that only adds to the plot once it gets in gear.
The film’s surprises, insofar that they can be called that, are easy to guess. That is a feature, not a bug, since the big question is when the tension will finally boil over. The film’s final act is more about suggestion than suspense, so an image of something innocuous like discarded shoes carries sinister heft. The reprieve of a privileged holiday drifts away, until all that’s left are broken people who find unhappiness in the one place they hoped to escape from it. The only major misstep is a shoehorned sub-plot about refugees who seek asylum on the island. By using them as a convenient device, Guadagnino distracts from the plot’s comeuppance (or lack thereof). On one level, there is delicious pleasure in watching this kind of luxury deteriorate, and yet by the end I found myself aching for scenes like the one where Harry carelessly skinny dips while “Jump into the Fire” plays in the background. A Bigger Splash invites judgment of its four leads. But it won’t judge you for wishing your life was a little more like theirs.