Photograph: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

A Bigger Splash
directed by Luca Guadagnino

Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, not relived but revisited, comprise the leitmotif of Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, A Bigger Splash. A onetime professor of film studies, Guadagnino was saved from obscurity by his friendship with the legendary—there is no other word for her—actress Tilda Swinton.

In 1985, fresh out of Cambridge and a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Swinton found her way into the circle of the brilliant experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman. As Swinton describes it, making films with Jarman was like creative partying. An openly gay man when it was still a criminal offense, he would invite all his friends over as collaborators. Swinton thought of herself less as an actress learning lines to emote than as an artist’s model finding the right pose for the scene. They made several films together; one of them, Caravaggio (1986)—portraying the violent, dark, bisexual life of the great painter—earned a critical following. Swinton’s character and her male lover competed to their death for the artist’s sexual attentions. (Jarman had been a painter and saw himself in the protagonist.) Jarman’s death from AIDS soon thereafter came as a great loss to Swinton, whose time with him shaped her life and her approach to cinema.

Eventually she teamed up with Sally Potter, and over many years of struggle they completed a film version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1992). Swinton played the work’s title role, who, across centuries of English history, changes from boy to man to woman. This gender-bending pageant of a film, a triumph for the two women, established Swinton’s glamorous persona. She took easily to the Dutch design team Viktor & Rolf, whose spectacular couture emphasized her androgyny. Almost six feet tall, of Scottish aristocratic ancestry, lean and pale, Swinton can seem like a beautiful alien who has fallen into our world. Many noted her resemblance to David Bowie, who played a starring role in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. In those years, androgyny was becoming an international cult, and Swinton and Bowie would be its high priests.

Human emotions are far more unpredictable than Hollywood's storytellers make them out to be.

In time Swinton was sought out by directors including the Coen brothers and Tony Gilroy, and she earned an Oscar for Michael Clayton (2007). Although she never thought of herself as a mainstream actress or a favorite of Hollywood moguls, she even appeared in blockbusters such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005).

Yet Swinton’s loyalty always remained with the Derek Jarmans of cinema, the radical fringe who pushed the envelope. Her roles, her couture, and her legend were all about breaking the rules, both political and psychosexual. By the time she met Guadagnino, she was a cinematic icon and a fashion celebrity who caused a stir whenever she appeared at an event.

• • •

Her project with Guadagnino would be a version of her formative relationship with Jarman. She was very much a collaborator, who coproduced and helped imagine their first film, I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009). The film told the story of a beautiful Russian woman (Swinton), purchased like a great painting by the scion of a wealthy Milanese family. After more than twenty-five years as wife and mother, she breaks out of her domestic chains when she discovers that her daughter is in love with a woman. She experiences not bourgeois shame but a liberating anarchic connection to her own sexuality. Though made with careful attention to the opulent architectural beauty of Milan, the film did not quite achieve critical acclaim. Somehow the story was not as engaging as the scenery, or so it seemed to Italian critics.

But Guadagnino now had a film with Swinton in his portfolio, and StudioCanal approached him with the idea of doing a remake of Jacques Deray and Jean-Claude Carrière’s La Piscine (1969), originally set in the Côte d’Azur. Guadagnino took up the project and enlisted the American writer David Kajganich. Of course he approached Swinton.

The original screenplay would have given her lots of lines. But Swinton, who had recently cared for her dying mother, did not feel like doing a lot of talking, so Guadagnino and Kajganich hit on the idea of making her character a rock star, Marianne Lane, who had undergone surgery on her vocal chords and had to go for weeks without speaking. With Swinton on board, Guadagnino assembled an extraordinary cast: Matthias Schoenaerts as Paul, a young filmmaker and Marianne’s lover; Ralph Fiennes as Harry, a record producer and Marianne’s former lover; and Dakota Johnson as Penelope, whom Harry has recently discovered is his daughter. Guadagnino moved the setting from the Côte d’Azur to Pantelleria, a remote volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. The cast of high-powered and high-priced actors would be marooned there under the scorching sun for two months. Swinton thought of it as a group vacation.

Swinton and Guadagnino agree that human emotions are far more complicated and unpredictable than Hollywood’s storytellers make them out to be. As the filmmaker puts it, the “ideology” of the “contemporary Anglo-Saxon cinema-industrial complex . . . is that every emotion should be understandable. In order for us all to be consumers of these emotions.” But as we see in this film, emotions are demonic in ways that hark back not to Freud but to Sophocles. A Bigger Splash is like a modern Greek myth in which the passions that lead to patricide and incest go unpunished.

As the film opens, Marianne—in a sparkling Ziggy Stardust sequined pantsuit, her makeup painted like a mask—mounts the stage at a packed stadium as thousands of fans roar her name. (The production was allowed fifteen minutes at an actual rock concert in Italy.) The very next scene finds her naked, lying by the pool in Pantelleria and then tenderly having sex in the pool with her young lover Paul. Theirs is an idyllic vacation, at least therapeutically. She is recuperating from her throat surgery; Paul is rehabbing from alcoholism and a suicide attempt. In their harmonious relationship he is nursing the older woman, seeing that she takes her pills, gets her rest, and doesn’t use her voice. He mothers her in a way that steadies and fulfills him. Into this idyll comes Harry, unexpected and unwelcome, who phones from the plane to announce his arrival.

Fiennes has never played a role like this before. As Guadagnino says, Fiennes has “very intense piercing eyes”; Guadagnino finds in them mania—bipolar mania that has long been stoked with a life of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Harry is still living in that Dionysian time, but behind the joy we sense desperation. It is an extraordinary performance. Harry’s speech is loud and explosive, and he never stops. Every remark is tinged with acid. He is impulsive and yet he has a plan. In his mind he had given Marianne to Paul, and now he wants her back. The F-word is everywhere after Harry arrives, and Paul jokingly suggests to Marianne that, in the rock-and-roll days, Harry F’ed everyone in sight, including him.

Every relationship is sexualized and bisexualized in Guadagnino’s cinema, and much of it is lived out in A Bigger Splash. Yet Swinton is by no means the classic object of the male gaze. In fact there is something active and vibrant in every role she plays—or is it the woman herself?—that turns back the leering eye. In this film her enforced silence creates an aura of vulnerability. How can she resist Harry’s avalanche of speech and emotional demands? The tension between Harry and Paul mounts as the vacation spins into rock-and-roll mania.

Marianne is sure she does not want to go back to Harry, but she still feels affection for him. We see intimate flashbacks: they share cocaine, and he helps her produce her songs in the recording studio. Harry tries to rekindle those feelings; he takes her to the festival in town, where he gets her to share something that looks like ecstasy with him. There comes a time when he forces himself on her sexually—or does she agree? His passion turns to resentment and her refusal to disappointment. He will go elsewhere and return late at night, naked and half-drunk, and dive into the pool. Paul, who has had his own sexual escapade that day, is waiting for him. Johnson, as Penelope, seems to ooze libido with every move she makes. When she arrives with Harry at the airport, Paul takes one look and jumps to the conclusion that she is Harry’s sexual protégée. Harry responds that everyone has been making that mistake about his newly discovered daughter.

Penelope sets out to seduce Paul, and perhaps she succeeds. When the men meet at the pool late at night, each has reason to accuse the other. They struggle, and love turns into hate; they wrestle in the pool and Paul drowns the older man. It would not be wrong to think of this scene as a kind of patricide. What will Marianne, the mother, think? Though silence has been prescribed, the next morning, when Harry’s body is found, she screams with uncontrollable grief. Will the inept Italian police discover that Paul is the killer? Will Marianne or Penelope reveal their suspicions?

Penelope emerges as the most mysterious of Guadagnino’s characters. We discover that she is a seventeen-year-old girl pretending to be a cool, sexually sophisticated twenty-two. And although she keeps her cool through Harry’s death, the police investigation, and a physical confrontation with Marianne, we see her emotionally broken as she boards the plane to leave the island.

Guadagnino wants the audience to experience Pantelleria as a force or character of its own, as he had Milan. In addition to the many shots of the villa, his camera pans the roads, rocks, hills, and skies. The island is on the sea route for refugees from Africa to Europe, and some of them make an appearance in the film. Critics are divided about the purpose they serve: Are they there to add scope, or as window dressing? If one listens and watches carefully, they are there to provide fall guys for the murder. When Paul and Marianne leave Penelope at the airport and drive away, they are pursued by the police with flashing lights and sirens sounding. It is an Alfred Hitchcock moment. We think that the police have discovered Paul’s guilt, but no, it turns out the inspector is a fan of Marianne and he wants her autograph. This modern mélange of Greek tragedy ends with Marianne laughing hysterically with relief as she drives away with Paul.

There is a moment in the film when Paul accuses Harry of being obscene. Harry’s response is, “We’re all obscene. Everybody’s obscene. That’s the whole point.” And that is one possible interpretation of this unforgettable film: passion without moral consequence is obscenity.