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‘A Bigger Splash’ combines sensuous style with confounding substance

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A Bigger Splash

Two and a half stars

A Bigger Splash Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.

Everyone on the internet who’s been clamoring for Tilda Swinton to play David Bowie may have to content themselves with her role as a Bowie-like rock star in the bewildering drama A Bigger Splash. The movie offers only a few glimpses of Swinton’s Marianne Lane at her rock-star height, since it takes place mostly at an Italian seaside villa where Marianne is staying with her filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) while recuperating from voice-saving throat surgery. The Marianne of the past, burning through a swaggering rock track in the recording studio or wearing a Bowie-style glam outfit in front of thousands of fans at a concert, is brash and confident. But with her voice temporarily silenced, she’s frustratingly powerless as her manic, overbearing record-producer ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes, enjoying a rare chance to overact) barrels back into her life.

Harry shows up uninvited at Marianne and Paul’s Italian retreat along with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who’s just learned that Harry is her father. They introduce tension and suspicion into the previously idyllic getaway, as Harry clearly has designs on winning Marianne back, while Penelope seems to be setting her sights on Paul. Everyone is harboring secrets, but director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich (loosely remaking the 1969 French movie La Piscine) aren’t in any hurry to reveal them, and as a result A Bigger Splash is often completely inscrutable, with characters behaving erratically and mysteriously. Guadagnino makes every scene into an ominous precursor of something, with sudden, apparently unmotivated close-ups and a soundtrack of dissonant, dark music.

A third-act twist sends the story into even murkier territory, especially when the filmmakers attempt to add an element of political commentary that is far too underdeveloped to be coherent. Swinton and Guadagnino previously worked together on the similarly lush but impenetrable I Am Love, and they are clearly on the same wavelength. Whatever that wavelength is, though, it never quite makes its way to the viewing audience.

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