Is it an oversimplification to say that Europeans make sexy films where Americans make dirty-minded ones? I can't think of a better argument for the case than Dakota Johnson. Naughtiness has never been more commodified and less erotic than in Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). The same year she starred in that film, the actress played one of the leads in Italian director Luca Guadagnino's first film since 2009's I Am Love. And — how do I put this? — cast as a Lolita type, Johnson is a revelation. In every sense of the word.
Nudity is just one of numerous elements that combine to make A Bigger Splash an irresistibly vibrant, sensual, visually sumptuous and, yes, sexy delight. Set on the sun-drenched island of Pantelleria, the movie studies the convergence of four fascinating figures in a hideaway so picture-perfect, it could be on another planet. Recuperating from throat surgery in this refuge is world-famous rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton). She's under doctor's orders not to speak and, except for the occasional whisper, remains silent throughout the film. That doesn't hinder an actress of Swinton's prowess from communicating every emotion under the sun. Literally. Keeping Marianne company is her lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker and recovering alcoholic.
They sunbathe naked, have sex in their private pool, slather each other with mud and bake like amorous cakes. At least until the arrival of two uninvited guests. The shadow of a jet passes over a tanning Marianne, and out of the blue appears Harry, her former producer and significant other. He's the latest creation of Ralph Fiennes, who appears to have picked up a spell or two from his years in the Harry Potter series. (How many reviews of this flesh-fest, I wonder, will mention those two Harrys in the same paragraph?)
Harry's a fabulous character, a human whirlwind and walking, talking bacchanal who doesn't so much disturb the peace that his hosts are enjoying as he turns up the volume on their insular lives. It's a wonderful performance that's constantly changing shades. In one of the movie's best scenes, Harry regales the others with the story of how he helped the Rolling Stones achieve the right sound for Emotional Rescue. He plays the record as he talks and, by the end of the anecdote, is dancing like Jagger and channeling lyrics directly at Marianne: "I will be your knight in shining armor..." Suddenly it's clear why he's come.
Which isn't exactly welcome news to Harry's old drinking buddy, Paul — a development that Johnson's character, Penny, decides to manipulate for her personal amusement. David Kajganich's script leaves unclear the exact nature of Penny's connection to Harry. She met him a year earlier, we're informed. He could be her father. He could be her lover. An icky suggestion that he could be both lingers, despite Harry's denials. Boundaries aren't anyone's strong suit here.
It's one freaky four-way about which movie-critic law forbids me revealing more. I can say that the party takes a dark turn few will see coming, that the filmmaker's musical choices range from Harry Nilsson to Popol Vuh and lend the picture a powerful charge, and that frequent collaborator Yorick Le Saux's camerawork turns every scene into a work of art.
That's fitting, given that the film's title comes from one of David Hockney's erotic pool paintings, a series portraying a leisure class of luxury and desire. Guadagnino leaves a number of central questions unanswered. But, while the Beatles may not be on his soundtrack, his film makes one thing abundantly clear: how it feels to be one of the beautiful people.