“A Bigger Splash” is a Very Sexy, Erotic Thriller on the Sicilian Island of Pantelleria

Italian director Luca Guadagnino has taken the original 1969 French psychological thriller La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) and has, quite literally, fleshed out the main characters.

The film stars Tilda Swinton in the lead and Ralph Fiennes as her hot, younger lover Matthias Shoenaerts, as well as Dakota Johnson as Swinton’s former lover as the sexual ingénue. They spend most of the film naked, or semi-naked, in and around the villa’s sumptuous pool — swimming, sunning, fighting, and shagging.

Guided by a sexually charged screenplay penned by American writer David Kajganich, Guadagnino has helped Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes craft some of their best, most memorable, and, in my opinion, most Oscar-worthy performances in years.

Swinton (Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Michael Clayton) is superb as Marianne, a female David Bowie-like rock star who is recuperating from throat surgery and chilling out in a gorgeous, sprawling villa in the island’s hills. Along with her is her bearded and brooding lover, Paul (Belgian actor Matthias Shoenaerts).

Under doctor’s orders, Swinton has been forbidden to use her voice, so she, as Marianne, must wordlessly express her feelings throughout the film: of love, anger, fear, doubt, confusion, jealousy, betrayal, contentment, and orgiastic ecstasy. To do so, Swinton draws upon all her formidable acting skills. It is truly a tour de force of artistic achievement.

In the past, Swinton has typically played weird, asexual androgynous roles. As rock star Marianne, who George (Ralph Fiennes) describes as someone who loves to “fu*k, fu*k, and fu*k”, she is very sexual and sensuous. In one of the opening scenes, she and her lover Paul are naked in the pool. Swinton’s back is against the wall, and Paul thrusts inside her with her fully exposed and wonderful breasts all ablaze. A great scene that perfectly sets the stage for the wild ride to follow.

Fiennes, normally known for his powerful and dramatic roles in The English Patient, Schindler’s List, and The Constant Gardener, lets it all hang out as the bearded, bombastic, and brash George Hawes. A wild and crazy music producer, George is a control freak with a devilish, snake-like smile. He is hedonistic, egotistical, sexist, selfish, narcissistic, abrasive, and, for most of the film, annoyingly obnoxious.

But he is very hard to look away from. He is, simply, captivating. George’s over-the-top, cock-walking, Jagger-like dance at poolside to The Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” is one of the true highlights of this film.

In other words, Fiennes, as George, is channeling the headline-grabbing Trumpster. I am not sure that this portrayal is by design or just mere coincidence.

Talk about art imitating life.

Seen through flashbacks, the viewer learns that years ago, George helped produce Marianne’s music. They were also coke-sniffing lovers. As George ruefully admits, he lost Marianne back then because he cheated on her. He was always “slutting around.” As a last attempt at controlling Marianne’s life and fate, George introduced his then-young documentary filmmaker friend, Paul, to Marianne.

Now fast forward back to the present. George invades Marianne and Paul’s idyllic and monogamous hideaway, nymphet daughter Penelope in tow. George has an agenda, and so does the sly Penelope. Both George and Penelope will force Marianne and Paul to deal with their respective addictions.

Ugly truths are revealed. Chests are bared. This story will not end well.

Interestingly, this story is set among the more serious and contemporary one of foreign migrants escaping the Middle East and trying desperately to reach Italy’s shores. And dying in the process.

As George tries to rekindle Marianne’s love for him during a shopping trip, the television in the background reveals that several migrants have drowned off the shore Pantelleria Island, the same on which the villa sits. Those who survived the voyage from nearby Tunisia have been penned in detention centres on the island.

Was the screenwriter and director trying to make a more important point? That the lives and loves of these languorous four do not amount to a Sicilian hill of beans in the greater scheme, or “Bigger Splash,” of things?

Or did the film director simply intend to take the original La Piscine and go deeper, bigger, and bawdier?

a bigger splash

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