Film: Fiennes makes a splash in a holiday hothouse

Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes star in a Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash (15, 124 mins, ★★★★)

For a film with such a watery title, A Bigger Splash takes palpable delight in characters that play with fire. It opens with Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a famous rock star, recuperating from a throat operation on a small Italian island with her devoted younger boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Their erotic cocoon is shredded by an unexpected visit from an old flame of Marianne’s, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his recently discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson), 22-year-old trouble in a pair of denim shorts.

Luca Guadagnino’s film, a remake of the 1969 French film La Piscine, chronicles the submerged irritations and sexual tensions of a villa holiday gone rogue with delicious precision. Harry, the chief catalyst for disruption, is an ageing hogger of the limelight, a disintegrating alpha male compulsively marking his territory (when chastised by Paul for urinating on a grave, he bolshily remarks: “All of Europe is a grave.”) A record producer, Harry relives his glory days with the Rolling Stones in well-worn anecdotes before – in one golden scene – cutting loose in a memorably manic boogie.

It is a mark of Fiennes’s brilliance in this role that he infuses Harry with something more than caricature: a robust, reckless hunger for life’s possibilities that can leave other men looking uptight. The teetotal Paul, in particular, is clearly discomfited by his guest’s dominant presence, as Harry noisily guts and stuffs fish, throws the house open to his friends and creates a stir by dragging a compliant Marianne to a local karaoke bar.

Furthermore, although Harry seems to paint his own life in broad brushstrokes on a wide canvas, he is an expert in the fine art of needling others. Swinton, playing a character unable to speak in anything louder than a hoarse whisper, nonetheless communicates a wealth of affection for Paul. Yet the strutting showbiz side of her (her spangled stage persona seems closest to that of David Bowie) still harkens to Harry. Next to Swinton’s natural assurance, Dakota Johnson conveys the dangerous appetite of a precarious identity, as a young woman all too aware that her sexiness is most of what she brings to the table.

The film tips from a chamber piece into a darker thriller, alluding to the Mediterranean refugee crisis and the warping power of celebrity without making its conclusions explicit. Yet as four great performances unfold in this holiday hothouse, the most powerful aspect is its intensifying depiction of Sartre’s observation that “hell is other people”.