No less than his ravishing 2009 melodrama "I Am Love," Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash" is a swooning cinematic appeal to the senses — two hours of al fresco lovemaking, gorgeous scenery and simmering erotic warfare. Which is not to suggest that the movie short-circuits rational thought or inquiry; on the contrary, its teasing, sun-drenched surfaces are likely to prompt a series of questions. When was the last time you sampled a freshly made ricotta? What's the going rate for a villa rental in Pantelleria? When exactly did Ralph Fiennes become one of the greatest actors working today?
Those inclined to measure a movie star's worth in Oscar nominations might point to Fiennes' mid-'90s breakthrough with "Schindler's List" and "The English Patient." But if a truer measure of an actor's greatness is the ability to surprise over the long haul, I'd set the date about a decade later, around the time he quietly walked away with the Keira Knightley vehicle "The Duchess," and well into his galvanizing five-film run as Lord Voldemort. By the time he stepped into "The Grand Budapest Hotel," brilliantly skewering — and deepening — his own costume-drama repertoire, it was clear that he was just beginning to explore the full measure of his protean gift.
That gift is on glorious, supremely uninhibited display in "A Bigger Splash," a moody Mediterranean-noir cocktail that would be worth imbibing if for no other reason than to witness Fiennes' show of pure, untrammeled id. Whether strutting about in the nude with a magnificent lack of embarrassment, seducing a crowd with a karaoke cover of Deep Fish's "Direction NYC," or cheerfully antagonizing everyone in sight, he is an impudent, insistent life force in a movie that slowly and meticulously charts a course for death.
That grim outcome won't surprise anyone who has seen Jacques Deray's 1969 film "La Piscine," whose tale of a romantic quadrangle on the French Riviera (starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin) furnishes the movie with a loose narrative template. The title of "A Bigger Splash," though inspired by a 1967 David Hockney painting, might just as well describe Guadagnino's desire to one-up his source material. Availing himself of a starry cast featuring Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, and sampling a range of cinematic influences that includes Michelangelo Antonioni, Claude Chabrol and early Roman Polanski, this Italian auteur has made one messy but satisfying cannonball plunge into the Hollywood deep end.
In a nod to her oft-noted resemblance to David Bowie, Swinton plays a world-famous rock star, Marianne Lane, who is recuperating on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria after a recent throat operation. She's under strict orders not to use her voice, which is just fine for her and her documentary-filmmaker boyfriend, Paul (Schoenaerts), a sensitive hunk who easily matches Marianne's reticence. Silence is golden and life is bliss, at least until a snake appears in this private Eden — first literally, and then in the form of an old friend named Harry (Fiennes).
Overstaying his welcome the moment he arrives, Harry is a record producer and Marianne's ex-lover; as it turns out, he's also the guy who introduced her to his friend Paul. The affection that once united the three of them still flickers in the present, though too weakly to dispel the clouds of lust, jealousy and thinly veiled hostility that begin to gather. Making matters worse and further complicating the sexual geometry, Harry has brought along Penelope (Johnson), the sultry-sullen young daughter he's only just met for the first time. The fact that people keep mistaking her for his girlfriend delights him no end, and is clearly meant to keep us similarly guessing.
The trappings of musical stardom — as seen in brief flashbacks to Marianne's concerts and recording sessions, and heard intermittently on the soundtrack — do more than isolate the characters in a cocoon of luxury. As they lounge around poolside or make occasional visits to a nearby village, their every word and gesture seems to reflect an entire history of drunken nights, sexual conquests, paralyzing addictions and unspoken tragedies, all of which make Marianne and Paul's contentment seem all the more hard-won.
Harry, operating with a take-no-prisoners abrasiveness that is inseparable from his charm, has every intention of disrupting the lovers' idyll. When he lip-syncs to the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" ("Is there nothing I can say, nothing I can do to change your mind?"), his entire body vibrating with ecstasy, there can be no mistaking what he means. Penelope, whose hobbies include disrobing, diving and oozing a general air of femme-fatale menace, is quieter but no less threatening. Almost unrecognizable as the shy virginal heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey," Johnson seems to carry the older characters' grudges and resentments in a dangerously concentrated form.
Schoenaerts, no stranger to playing bruised, brooding slabs in films such as "Rust and Bone" and "Bullhead," makes an equally compelling screen presence here, matching Fiennes' libidinous excess with his own sexy restraint. And Swinton, even when robbed of one of an actor's most expressive tools, somehow turns that deprivation to her advantage: Her hoarse, watchful silence sets her apart in more ways than one, and Marianne becomes both an object of desire and a figure of unexpected depth and compassion.
Swinton was also the radiant center of Guadagnino's "I Am Love," in which she played a woman slowly awakening to her deepest longings and shedding the pretenses of her rigid upper-class existence. "A Bigger Splash," which approaches the pursuit of pleasure from a more jaundiced angle, doesn't have that earlier film's neo-Viscontian sweep or its delirious formal ecstasy. (It does, however, reveal a similar distrust for swimming pools.) Yorick Le Saux's camera is duly magnetized by the lovely faces and bodies that cross its path, but Guadagnino's visual construction feels more prosaic this time, in thrall to a busy narrative machinery that occasionally creaks as it pushes the characters toward their respective fates.
The final act, though anticlimactic in its tying up of loose ends, also delivers an unexpected shift in perspective, possibly forcing a reassessment of who the real victims of the story might be. Does "A Bigger Splash" end with a cathartic affirmation of its characters' happiness, or a cynical indictment of their privilege? Guadagnino isn't telling. But he's made the rare movie that, for all its delight in its own beautiful surface, turns out to be altogether less shallow than it appears.
'A Bigger Splash'
MPAA rating: R for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes