Italian director Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash" is a feast for the senses -- one whose seductive pleasures can barely conceal the dark heart that beats underneath. Based loosely on Jacques Deray's 1969 film "La Piscine" -- and using a summery color palette lifted from the David Hockney painting with which it shares a name -- the film gleefully cavorts its way through various tones and genres. It's a thriller, technically, though Guadagnino takes his time getting to the thrills, content to let viewers bask in the gorgeous scenery and the beautiful people who occupy it.
Tilda Swinton stars as world-famous, Bowie-esque rock star Marianne Lane. Shacked up in a villa on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria, Marianne is recuperating from vocal surgery under the doting care of her boyfriend, Paul (a sensitively brooding Matthias Schoenaerts). The couple's idyllic existence in paradise is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of an old friend: Marianne's former producer and ex-lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes).
Pure id, Harry enters like a hurricane, wreaking havoc on what was intended as a time for healing and relaxation (the phone call proclaiming his imminent arrival comes in just as his plane meaningfully casts its massive shadow over the blissfully sunbathing couple). Adding to the awkwardness is the fact that Harry's brought along Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the teenaged daughter whose existence he only recently discovered.
Sexual tensions simmer in just about every direction you can imagine as jealousy and deception rear their heads and things begin to take a darker turn for the dysfunctional quadrangle. All the while, the characters remain oblivious to the region's ongoing migrant crisis, which serves as background noise to their own petty dramas. As an exploration of the perils of first world privilege, this aspect of the plot is intriguing, if somewhat underdeveloped.
On doctor's orders, Marianne is to refrain from speaking. Though Marianne can whisper when she deems it necessary (mostly to talk conspiratorially with Paul during the rare moments they're alone), Swinton's performance is almost completely wordless. Being unable to speak above a whisper does nothing to temper Swinton's ability to be completely captivating on screen.
Fiennes is an over-the-top delight. With his nonstop chatter, Harry is not far off from the gregarious M. Gustave of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," albeit with more malicious intent. Fiennes' lengthy, uninhibited dance to The Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" is a film highlight.
Johnson's sultry Penelope is the film's most opaque character; she's all the more menacing for being the sole character who plays her true intentions close to the chest.
As he demonstrated with "I Am Love," Guadagnino is a director of tactile visions: You can practically feel the sun and the sweat from bodies waiting to collide with one another, through either an act of sex or violence (or both). The lush, sun-drenched cinematography from Yorick Le Saux contrasts against the film's murky morality. Highlighting every gesture, movement, and glance, editor Walter Fasano contributes even more to the film's sense of intimacy than any of the considerable amounts of flesh on display.
Opening during a season that promises to deliver a tidal wave of superheroes, sequels, and reboots, the adult pleasures of "A Bigger Splash" offer a refreshing alternative for more adventurous audiences.