It’s probably not a huge surprise to see Tilda Swinton playing a stylish David Bowie-esque rock star. The ever-eccentric actress should have “Ziggy Stardust” as her personal theme song.
In “A Bigger Splash,” she goes even more esoteric, playing the rock ’n’ roll diva Marianne as she’s recovering from throat surgery and almost unable to produce a vocal sound. Swinton has a near-supernatural ability to project a glitter-glam personality without uttering a word.
But more remarkable still is the usually reserved Mr. Gravitas, Ralph Fiennes, as her id-driven studio producer, mentor and former lover Harry. This unwelcome visitor from the past has returned to her life like a randy mountain goat aiming to kick-start a reunion tour of their erotic glory days. A strong echo of the over-amped Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast,” Fiennes fires off aren’t-I-charming dialogue so fast you might forget that Swinton has gone silent.
That’s a major tonal shift as he boogies around her Mediterranean villa like a teenager on an aphrodisiac overdose. It’s complicated further by Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the stunning, clearly turned-on teenager (girlfriend? daughter?) he brings on the visit with him and the reasonable resentment felt by Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), Marianne’s longtime flame.
The snakes slithering around the terrace are not an omen of happy times ahead. The men begin a tense battle of wits with a flavor of Harold Pinter’s edgy, half-expressed menace. As their sybaritic streams cross in the swimming pool, you don’t know whether to laugh or shiver. Tempers reveal hair triggers, and brutal complications ensue with consequences ranging from the area’s growing refugee population to the unprofessional police force.
Director Luca Guadagnino favors putting character first, which can trigger bravura acting, but isn’t a guarantee of fascination. The often gentlemanly Fiennes clearly has a blast playing a jocular, revved-up sensualist, Swinton’s screen magnetism never dims, and Schoenaerts, who has played a number of brutes, sharply plays off both co-stars with a sensitive, lucid performance. It’s a solid gold cast, yet the film feels less than bronze, maybe wooden.