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A Bigger Splash will have you holding your breath, then scratching your head

There’s a reason your mother always warned against roughhousing in the pool.

There’s a reason your mother always warned against roughhousing in the pool.


By loosely remaking Jacques Deray's La Piscine, Luca Guadagnino has also crafted a waterlogged companion piece to his own I Am Love. If you've seen that unhappy film about beautiful people in a beautiful place, you'll quickly recognize the Italian auteur's aesthetic at work: detail-oriented close-ups of Tilda Swinton's visage, lush flora and fauna, shots of extravagant meals that bring to mind a high-minded Instagram.

Situated 60 miles from Sicily and 40 from Tunisia, A Bigger Splash's volcanic setting is primed to erupt — though not necessarily in the way you'd expect.

In what now seems like an inevitable performance, Swinton stars as a David Bowie-inflected rock goddess, with one caveat: She's recovering from vocal-cord surgery and can't raise her voice above a whisper. Matthias Schoenaerts is her filmmaker beau, and how happy Marianne and Paul are when first we meet them. Vacationing on the isle of Pantelleria, they while away the days with sex in the pool and mud baths by the lake. This is the good life, and you know what they say about good things.

The couple's idyll is disrupted by the arrival of Marianne's former producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his recently discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), two combustible elements in a once-stable environment.

Sexual tension arcs between everyone in this foursome, and I do mean everyone. Boundaries are porous. Everyone sunbathing poolside leads to daiquiris with dinner leads to late-night swims, and Guadagnino delights in using his characters' bodies as a means of carnal longing that quickly turns dark. There's a reason your mother always warned against roughhousing in the pool.

It's Fiennes who most closely matches the filmmaker's maximalist approach, playing the kind of music-biz mainstay who snorted so much coke in the '80s that the effect has never fully worn off. His manic presence is the kind that requires energy to be around, as though he reached his high-water mark years ago and is slowly but surely crashing ashore, bringing everyone nearby along for the ride whether they like it or not. "He doesn't believe in limits," Penelope says of her father; at times, it seems, neither does Guadagnino.

Swinton, cinema's reigning alien princess, exudes even more charisma than usual in a nearly silent performance. Limiting one aspect of her craft enhances all others, from her Falconetti-like emoting to her angular physicality. Marianne and Harry have a past, of course, and Guadagnino ratchets up tension (only some of which is sexual) in such a way that we're left wondering whether all four principals have a future — this kind of dynamic can only end in a few different ways, none of them sunny.

But after the third or fourth false alarm — a drunk at a bar who heckles Harry's karaoke performance but eventually shuts up, a car stalled in a most precarious position — the once-excruciating buildup turns enervating, even manipulative. Guadagnino knows he has us in the palm of his hand, but not what to do with that power once he's finally, mercifully broken the tension. He puts so many eggs in that basket that, after they've come tumbling down, there's not much to salvage.

Almost inexplicably, his and screenwriter David Kajganich's solution is to bring the formerly subtle subtext of Europe's migrant crisis to the fore in increasingly heavy-handed fashion. If an erotic thriller that decides, in its final act, to gesture toward a continental crisis sounds disjointed (and even disingenuous), that's because it is. It's as though the filmmakers got midway through production, realized how insular the whole affair was, and remembered where they were in the world. But Guadagnino is more skilled at observing the body Swinton than the body politic. The more he widens his scope, the less interesting his picture becomes.

A Bigger Splash
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema