There’s a lot more than just sun and sex teeming beneath the glistening surface of Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash,” which takes Jacques Deray’s coolly seductive 1969 “La Piscine” as the platform from which it dives into far deeper — and more explicitly fervid — psychological waters. Once again, an off-the-grid couple find their already scorching-hot getaway interrupted by the arrival of a lusty old flame and his dangerously seductive daughter, only this time, the characters are more, ahem, fleshed out, while the pic’s off-kilter casting invites a sense of wild unpredictability to the proceedings. Putting a buffer between local pundits’ vocally negative Venice film fest reactions and its U.S. release, Fox Searchlight plans to keep this sly erotic thriller under wraps until May 13, 2016, though it will be hard to top the $5 million Stateside splash Guadagnino made with his previous pic, “I Am Love.”
Over the decades, Deray’s slow-burn cult favorite has become the frame of reference for a certain “je ne sais quoi,” as embodied by its iconic star, Alain Delon — the face of Dior, so nonchalant behind his Vuarnet shades — and onscreen wife (and real-world ex), Romy Schneider. Here, vacationing on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria (a intriguingly volatile upgrade from the original’s more laid-back St. Tropez), the couple are played by Belgian hunk Matthias Schoenaerts and Guadagnino muse Tilda Swinton, doing her own Dior duty with a svelte Raf Simons-designed wardrobe.
Barely sketched in the original, Swinton’s character has since been upgraded to rock-star status: She’s the one and only (and seemingly un-sunburnable) Marianne Lane, a gender-swapped David Bowie-like glam figure who’s resting her vocal chords after a recent throat operation — an intriguing creative decision on Guadagnino’s part, as it limits her ability to communicate in a film where nearly all the other characters are free to speak not only their minds, but much of the subtext as well.
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For the sake of her recovery, Marianne is hiding out with documentary filmmaker Paul (Schoenaerts), the grounding force for her previously self-destructive persona. In six years’ time, the passion clearly hasn’t subsided, though it’s complicated by an unforeseen visit from boisterous music producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes). As flashbacks reveal, just after he and Marianne called it quits, Harry was the one who brought his two friends together and blessed their union, but now he seems to be having second thoughts, barging in on their idyll with the none-too-subtle agenda of whisking her away.
The sort of impulsive, boundary-oblivious force of nature who acts first and thinks later, Harry drags his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) along for the task (as what, his witness? fair trade for what he intends to take from Paul?), creating a volatile situation in which all four seem to be in over their heads — and at least one is sure to end up floating dead in the pool.
With a friend like Harry, as the saying goes, who needs enemies? In the original, his character was the casualty, though all bets are off here, as Guadagnino and American screenwriter David Kajganich (“The Invasion”) have re-engineered the ensemble enough to keep us guessing. They’ve also made Harry far more abrasive. In Fiennes’ hands, he’s an unfiltered and loud-mouthed boor who takes such irrepressible pleasure from life’s every moment that we’re all but ready to drown the grating bon vivant from the moment he appears onscreen.
Sustaining such obnoxiousness is a harder feat to pull off than one might imagine, and though this isn’t a typical awards-seeking performance from Fiennes, it certainly ranks among the actor’s best — not only catalyzing all that follows, but reflecting aspects of his director’s personality that have made Guadagnino a somewhat controversial creative figure in Italy (where “I Am Love,” arguably the best movie of the last decade, was a critically derided flop).
Like Harry, “A Bigger Splash’s” epicurean director wants — nay, demands — to experience life more fully than the complacent rank and file. “I Am Love” was practically a declaration of war on such self-repressive propriety, a hyper-sensualized battle cry for any who might deny themselves according to the rules of society or bonds of family. “Go ahead, leave your husband! Grab love while you can!” it all but shouted from the rooftops. Here, Guadagnino and his one-of-a-kind star Swinton turn the tables: Marianne was wild once, but she’s found stability in monogamy and now must fight to protect that from the incursion of a disrespectful ex.
As templates go, Deray’s minimalist “Swimming Pool” provides such a spare one from which to extrapolate that “A Bigger Splash” becomes a case study in artistic choices, full of unexpected stylistic flourishes designed to ratchet up the tension and reveal tender chinks in the characters’ respective armor. At times, Guadagnino appears to be doing nothing more than languorously admiring the bare skin of his volatile foursome, who are joined by two of Harry’s communist friends (Lily McMenamy and Aurore Clement), freely pouring the cocktails Harry knows recovering alcoholic Paul has given up drinking.
However, while the title serves as an obvious nod to pop artist David Hockney, whose homoerotic pool paintings celebrate a similar leisure-class state of relaxation and desire, it also announces the filmmaker’s intention to stir things up, ripping the bandages off their all-too-recent emotional wounds — some of which are quite real: Marianne’s muted larynx, or the backstory of that nasty scar running down Paul’s left flank. Guadagnino is generous with nudity, male and female alike, and Paul spends much of his time caught in the oh-so-curious gaze of young Penelope, who provides a far less virginal nymphet for “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Johnson to play.
Penelope’s not even sure Harry is her father, which adds the icky possibility of incest to this feral foursome’s many possible permutations, though it’s hard to imagine where else she could have gotten her penchant for pushing people’s buttons. As it turns out, Harry has only just learned of Penelope’s existence, so when he launches into one of those old stories about his glory days with the Rolling Stones, it’s mostly for her benefit. The others have heard it all before. (Meanwhile, the Stones’ “Moon Is Up” and “Emotional Rescue” pump still more juice into the pic’s live-wire soundtrack, which Guadagnino uses to jolt the pool from time to time, treating rock less as a musical genre than a lifestyle choice.)
So, as Harry closes in on Marianne, his Lolita-like daughter makes her move on Paul, ensuring that at least one of their party will be departing this holiday in a body bag. But for Guadagnino, it’s not the characters’ fates that matter so much as their dynamics, which Kajganich and the director manipulate with the sort of take-no-prisoners attitude typically reserved for theater, pushing the entire ensemble to their full potential.
When the police inspector shows up in the final real, the pic pulls a surprising trick, acknowledging all the other deaths on his docket — including seven Tunisian immigrants drowned the same day. Until now, these refugees’ presence has been felt, albeit slightly, on the margins of earlier scenes, though it’s awfully tempting to be pulled back into the sexy embrace of Paul and Marianne’s pool. Still, we have to wonder: Could this be yet another way to interpret the film’s title? We’ve spent all this time focused on sexy “white people problems,” while bigger concerns are consuming Sicily and the world at large. By comparison, we’re forced to admit, these four relatively privileged characters’ dalliances are just a drop in the piscine.