As Marianne and Paul stretch out, a shadow passes over them. It is a plane, bringing an unexpected and largely unwelcome guest: Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s ex, and also her former producer. (Flashbacks show them working in the recording studio, or fondly cementing their bond with snorts of coke.) Now he is back, barging through the airport and breaching the peace, and with him is a young and unruffled blonde. Marianne and Paul presume that she’s a conquest, the latest in an immeasurable line: an easy mistake to make, for Harry ogles her and brandishes her like a prize. (“She’s a lovely bitch.”) In fact, she is his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). From here on, a scent of something unhealthy hovers around their relationship, never to be dispelled.
Why, then, do we not recoil from Harry and leave it at that? Because Fiennes is in his element, and his pomp. The hints of deep unhappiness—buckled down or warped into outright malice—that showed in his earlier roles have made way for a broader strain of play and expostulation, although, to one’s amazement, there has been no loss of intensity. Set beside the Nazi commandant whom he depicted in “Schindler’s List,” his Lord Voldemort, in the Harry Potter saga, was a fantasy of ill intent, designed for kids, yet Fiennes laid serious siege to their imaginations. And so to this Harry: a loudmouth and a boor, arms spread wide in an engulfing hug. He will not take no for an answer, whether it involves ravishment or a restaurant table; indeed, he will barely ask the question, preferring to bully the world into an exhausted chorus of “yes.” Marianne and Paul don’t want Harry at their villa, and he knows as much, but he moves in anyway, with Penelope in tow. It is as though Falstaff had decided to try his hand at being Prospero, with a secluded little kingdom of his own, and a treasured child.
Unsurprisingly, Harry powers the plot. He comes on to Marianne afresh. He dices with Paul, and the rivalry between them lends even their summery larks, like a swimming race, the blare of battle. A festival in a nearby town begins with the parading of a Madonna, in pious procession, and ends with Harry taking over the karaoke machine at a local bar and crooning to the crowd. Life swells into a permanent head-to-head, for which Guadagnino finds a startling dramatic shape. As Marianne and Harry bicker in the street, each of them confronts the camera, their faces filling the frame, and even Swinton’s makeup becomes a weapon. At the start of the film, her eyes are daubed with silver; here they gleam with a wicked yellow gold.
“A Bigger Splash” is the title of a David Hockney painting from 1967—an ejaculatory shot of white on the surface of a calm California pool. The screenplay of the new movie, by David Kajganich, is adapted from “La Piscine” (1969), a modish romantic thriller with Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, set in the South of France, as was “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958), another tale of a daughter perplexed by her father’s passions. Then, there’s “Stromboli” (1950), where Ingrid Bergman pursued her yearnings beneath volcanic hills. Above all, fans of Guadagnino’s previous work, “I Am Love” (2009), in which Swinton played an aristocrat who had an affair with a chef, will find much to savor here. Food, again, wields a vitalizing force. The closeups of fresh ricotta being spooned, still warm, into Marianne’s mouth, or of a fish having its belly stuffed with chilies and herbs (Harry, needless to say, is an unrestrained cook), exude a tang that verges on the erotic.
Not that we have to go without sex itself. The main characters keep having it, discussing it, or joking about it, and every carnal combination seems ready to be explored. In short, Luca Guadagnino has made something rare and disconcerting: a genuinely pagan film. It rejoices not just in nudity, male and female, but in the classical notion of figures in a landscape, and of the earth itself demanding frenzied worship. That is why Harry, having put on a Rolling Stones LP, begins to dance to “Emotional Rescue” and then, clearly fettered by interior space, bursts out onto the rooftop and continues his display under a scorching haze. Who would have thought that an Englishman, of all people, would prove to be such a natural Dionysian?
“A Bigger Splash” is fiercely unrelaxing, and impossible to ignore. You emerge from it restive and itchy, as though a movie screen could give you sunburn, and the story defies resolution. Penelope, the youngest of the group, remains the hardest to fathom, and provides a final twist. None of the four could be described as affable. Yet they all seem dangerously alive, in their indolence as in their rutting, and even the speechless Marianne is able to enunciate, through gasps and gestures, the storm of her body’s needs and her heart’s complaint. The isle is full of noises, and they won’t die down.