Film / Reviews

'A Bigger Splash': Sex-and-power drama under the sun

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

I used to think Instagram was the last word on vacation envy, but the first wave of a small tsunami of a film called “A Bigger Splash” completely negates this assumption.

Five minutes into this luscious, lascivious, sun-drenched decadence, we realize that most of what we’ve come to associate with vacations isn’t really a vacation at all, but more like work: making restaurant reservations, researching what to see and do, finding Airbnbs and reading up on Trip Advisor.

The so-called vacation in “A Bigger Splash,” however is a different story. A beautiful couple (Tilda Swinton and Matthias Schoenaerts) stay in a secluded villa tucked away in the mountainside of a Sicilian island and spend the entire day naked, by the pool. They make love, sip from wine glasses, flip through heavy, arty books and just … lie there.

A Bigger Splash (Munasawagi no Shichiria)
Rating
Run Time 125 mins
Language English and Italian
Opens NOW SHOWING

The next day, they get dressed (she in an oversized shirt, he in vintage jeans) and drive to a beach where they lie in a natural mud bath, in each other’s arms. No fretting about reservations. No looking for Wi-Fi. No wondering whether there’s a gym and a kale smoothie nearby. It’s just lots of sex and long, caressing looks with a to-die-for soundtrack in the background. So that’s what a real vacation is like.

“A Bigger Splash” marks Luca Guadagnino’s third team-up with Tilda Swinton (after “The Protagonists” and “I Am Love”), and once again he has assembled just the cast to offset her majestic presence. Swinton is Marianne Lane, an aging rock star recovering from throat surgery in the aforementioned Sicilian villa. She can’t raise her voice above a whisper and communicates with her much younger boyfriend, Paul, (Shoenaerts) through sighs and looks and post-it signs on the refrigerator. Interestingly, Marianne’s inability to talk was an idea from Tilda Swinton, who consented to the role on condition that she wouldn’t be able to say very much.

That ploy works beautifully, for much of the story hinges on Marianne’s elegant reticence. And imagine getting to spend a vacation without having to talk. Paul seems totally turned on by the fact that his lover of six years is so quiet, and their days of bliss would have gone on much longer if not for the sudden arrival of the raucous, obnoxious Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Former producer for the Rolling Stones and Marianne’s ex, Harry shows up with a large suitcase and the stunning Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whom he introduces as a daughter he never knew he had.

Penelope is uninteresting at first as a pouty millennial flinging around her sense of entitlement, but she soon reveals that she has other items on her agenda — namely seducing Paul, a feat that she apparently considers one of the conditions of a successful vacation. Harry, for his part, makes no secret of the fact that he still carries a torch for Marianne and tries to convince her that they belong with each other.

All this unfolds under a golden sun, against the mercilessly blue Mediterranean, the splendidly rugged island-scape and the villa. Marianne strolls around barefoot in a selection of seriously enviable resort garb, designed exclusively for Swinton by Raf Simmons, doing nothing but embodying all that’s criminally gorgeous about late capitalism.

As befitting a goddess, Marianne resists being embroiled in the sex-and-power drama that goes on around the pool until the very end, when she allows a bit of defeated vulnerability to show through (and even that looks regal). By that time, though, she’s somehow less intriguing, probably because the story suggests (with the onslaught of a sudden rainstorm) that her extended holiday is about to end. At some point, even goddesses must pack up and go home.