“A Bigger Splash” opens in the midst of an idyllic interlude, on the island of Pantelleria, off the Italian coast, where Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), an arena-level rock star, New Romantic David Bowie with Chrissie Hynde hair, has come with her ruggedly handsome paramour Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) for some r&r. It is bliss, all scenery and sex, topped off by mud baths and lazing on the beach, where their paradise is suddenly invaded by a big old jetliner roaring just overhead, artificially clouding their sunny skies. The plane carries Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former producer and flame. Though there is much talk throughout the film of a Sirocco wind kicking up on the island, the real wind is Harry, a Hall of Fame motor-mouth, sans an off switch, who rambles into this movie already in the midst of spewing sentences, and gets himself invited along to Marianne and Paul’s pad despite the latter’s clear aversion to his idea. Harry is best emblemized in a later close-up of his bright white teeth, glittering in terror as they prattle on at 180 beats per minute, which they consistently do. In real life, this guy might drive you to jump off a cliff; in “A Bigger Splash”, he is an unstoppable life force, the straw that stirs this drink.
Harry brings with him twenty-something-ish Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whom he has only just learned is his daughter. She is something of a nymphet, striding around almost exclusively in short shorts, but also a paper-thin blank space, the kind invented, customarily by wanton males, for the sole purpose of exuding erotic temptation. She entices Paul, yes, but also Harry, who alternates between being thrilled that she’s his and wishing she wasn’t; not because he wants to ignore her, mind you, but because, well, she’s a nymphet in short shorts. If that sounds a tad tawdry for your tastes, perhaps “A Bigger Splash” is not the cinematic experience for you.
It is also not the cinematic experience for you if you enjoy hearing Tilda Swinton, who can be so deliberately precise in her pronunciation (see: “Michael Clayton”), talk. That is because her character cannot speak, on account of surgery to repair her blown out vocal cords, forcing her to communicate non-verbally, with askance glances and tilts of the head. Swinton is up for it, of course, not simply because she’s a grand thespian, which she re-clarifies by conveying an orgasm without making a single sound, but because she instilled this challenge herself, specifically asking that her character be written without a voice. That means her inability to converse is partly for show, but it also means that Harry becomes the principal aggressor of the murky plot, especially because Paul is simply a stand-off-to-the-side-and-brood sorta guy.
For a good hour, hour and a half, director Luca Guadagnino is content to allow Marianne, and Paul, and Penelope to be dragged along in Harry’s choppy if boisterous wake, never more so than a delicious sequence in which Harry expounds upon a recording session he helmed with The Rolling Stones that emerges as front-runner for Monologue of the Year and paves the way for a musical number, of sorts, in which he goes gleefully berserk in singing along to the aforementioned band’s “Emotional Rescue”, a Fred Astaire dance number as re-imagined by Andrew Loog Oldham. As Harry cavorts, he tears out of the villa, toward the pool, up onto a ledge, a man devouring life whole, which Fiennes plays with an uninhibited exhilaration, though at other points he makes clear this exhilaration masks plenty of melancholy and regret.
Harry is a character that doesn’t really think beyond Now, like when he crashes his convertible and simply abandons it. The movie forgets about the car, which isn’t a narrative flaw but emblematic of how “A Bigger Splash”, which is based on the 1969 French film “La Piscine” (which I have not seen), is best when it plays like a lascivious shaggy dog story. Alas, each of these characters is strapped to a bomb, whether it is Harry and Marianne’s former love that might still simmer, Paul’s checkered past or those short shorts of Penelope begging to come off for the sake of titillation. Each bomb is required to detonate, and as they do, “A Bigger Splash” devolves into a strange brew of Italian soap opera by way of Wife Swap by way of Lifetime crime drama. It’s only worsened by attempting to connect the plight of migrant refugees, which are merely glimpsed once in the form of a TV news report, to this quartet’s white privilege.
If Guadagnino agrees they are stricken by white privilege, he also doesn’t care, evinced by the Inspector Closeau-level of investigation that goes on in the concluding sequences revolving around a death at Marianne’s villa, a We Know Who Did It Whodunit? in which the tone oddly wavers between sarcasm and seriousness. None of the actors here seem to be singing in precise harmony, not like they were earlier, which can perhaps be attributed to the character of Harry being moved out of the picture too early, which might legally constitute a spoiler but so what? Even if you know he dies, which he does, triggering “A Bigger Splash’s” collapse, that will make it more important to remember as you are watching to embrace Ralph Fiennes’ majestically frenzied performance while it is allowed to live.