‘A Bigger Splash’
Director:
Luca Guadagnino
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Luca Guadgnino has good taste. He likes pretty bodies in states of undress, the Stones on vinyl and Tilda Swinton. He likes winding Mediterranean roads, ’70s French star Aurore Clement and occasionally stealing not just Scorsese shots but Scorsese songs, too. “A Bigger Splash,” which houses all this and others beside, is the director’s follow-up to “I Am Love,” and both are compendiums of stuff he loves that falter only when they try to do more. That’s not entirely fair: “A Bigger Splash” is rooted in a palpable fear of getting old, of never settling down, of being not only the last one at the party but the one who knows how to do nothing but. That makes it more than a collection of stuff — although what stuff.

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The man in question is Ralph Fiennes’ Harry, a perpetually “on” music producer of some legend, still prone to wearing few enough clothes to show off an old hammer-and-sickle tattoo. (Among his triumphs: the Stones’ “Voodoo Lounge.” Does that mean he’s based on Don Was?) In the first few minutes he crashes — along with the cagy millennial daughter (Dakota Johnson) he never knew he had — the summer home of people who move at the opposite speed: Swinton’s presently hoarse rock god Marianne Lane and her taciturn, stern lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They want to lounge about naked, visit mud baths and generally speak without speaking (because Marianne, save some throaty exclamations, can’t speak at all). Harry wants to dine, to booze and, in one instant YouTube classic, frug maniacally to “Emotional Rescue.”

Fiennes in overdrive is never to be ignored. (See also: “In Bruges,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”) He supplies the nerve and the drive to a film that would be happy just to be a quiet hang, but is instead ragged and bipolar. Marianne and Harry are exes, and though he basically gifted her with his friend Paul, he can’t take that she’s stuck in love with a guy who’s quiet and kind and very much his polar opposite. Enjoying being largely mute, she’s happy to throw in the towel, to rest on her laurels, to succumb to a lazy retirement punctuated only be some impulsive hot oral sex. Harry can’t take it, and instead of stinking on the third day, he stinks right away, and only grows more pungent.

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“Splash” is loosely based on the 1969 Eurotrash sextacular “La Piscine,” which boasted even prettier things: Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Jane Birkin. That film was mostly style, little substance. Guadagnino’s film is just enough substance. It cruises on the decadent scenery and the carefree lifestyles of the rich and famous, plus the tension bubbling under every layabout scene. Every character is a bomb with varying fuse lengths. Harry is definitely bound to explode at some point, but so is Paul, still reeling from a year-old suicide attempt. He’s not drinking (and passively aggressive when Harry is), all pent up anguish and fury. A key scene finds everyone lounging poolside, Marianne and Paul barely tolerating Harry’s persistent babbling and fidgeting — a tension underscored by his blasting Harry Nilsson’s gun-metal “Jump Into the Fire.” That song is basically owned by Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” but credit Guadagnino with finding a new use for it: as a way to show two people who can’t wait to cast an old friend — and their old selves — out of their life. 

Alternately lazy and alive, “A Bigger Splash” almost gets away with existing. Its one significant flaw takes up minimum real estate, but it nearly torpedoes the whole thing, all while underlining how Guadagnino never fully realizes his films. It’s always clear we’re not supposed to take this as a straight-ahead, luxurious travelogue. These people are rich, but the island they’re on — Pantelleria, nestled between Italy and Tunisia — has a history of slave trade, and is a current haven for desperate refugees. “A Bigger Splash” cares, but not enough to give this angle more than a couple throwaway mentions, before bringing it back during its leftfield “shocker” of a third act. Guadagnino gives it just enough screentime for us to notice how little it figures in the action. It would almost be better if his latest hadn’t bothered at all — if it had just kicked back and dwelled on fleshy bods and overpowering sun and impromptu karaoke and dancing and wealth and all the things Guadagnino cares about the most.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge