Lawrence Toppman

‘A Bigger Splash’: Sex, sun and suspense in southern Italy

From left, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson in “A Bigger Splash.”
From left, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson in “A Bigger Splash.” Fox Searchlight Pictures

I have never seen “La Piscine,” the 1969 Jacques Deray film about a couple in Saint-Tropez whose vacation gets interrupted by her ex-lover and his daughter. I do like the advertising tagline: “The first one out is in ... the last one out is dead!”

But I want to see it now, to find out whether it has the same sense of sun-drenched menace, creepy sexuality and odd plotting of its remake, “A Bigger Splash.” Perhaps then I’ll understand exactly what I was supposed to feel at the end of Luca Guadagnino’s drama.

Not that I didn’t enjoy three-fourths of the journey in the expert hands of Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Matthias Schoenaerts. She plays Marianne, a rock star who fills arenas until a throat operation sends her into silent seclusion on an island off the coast of Italy. She stays with Paul (Schoenaerts), a filmmaker who made a documentary about her, in a blissful dream of food, sex and dolce far niente – “sweet doing nothing,” as the Italians say.

Harry (the superb Fiennes), Marianne’s former producer and lover, arrives without warning and with young Penelope, his alleged daughter (Dakota Johnson, whose performance proves “Fifty Shades of Grey” was half her fault).

Harry doesn’t necessarily mean trouble. He just is trouble: immaturely competitive, bullying, pretending to care about others but looking for weaknesses, announcing he’d have sex with Penelope if she weren’t his daughter. (Perhaps he’s a parody of Donald Trump?)

Depending on your view, he energizes a room full of people or sucks all the oxygen out of it. When he targets Marianne sexually, and sullen Penelope targets Paul, you know something’s gonna blow.

Director Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich keep our curiosity by revealing important elements slowly: the extent of Harry’s egomania, the reason Paul no longer drinks, the cause of Marianne’s self-disgust and inability to set boundaries.

But when the movie becomes more conventional, it stumbles. Middle Eastern immigrants play a role in the narrative; a police inspector suspects someone in the household may have committed a crime; secrets without much impact emerge, though Penelope’s motivations remain a dull enigma to the end.

Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who made Swinton alluringly mysterious in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” performs a similar service here. His camera gives us the feeling we’re drowning in a distressful dream; only at the end, when we wake up, is there a slight feeling of disappointment.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘A Bigger Splash’

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson.

Director: Luca Guadagnino.

Length: 125 minutes.

Rating: R (graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language, brief drug use).

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