‘A Bigger Splash’: An isle seat for meandering character study

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Dakota Johnson (from left), Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Matthias Schoenaerts in “A Bigger Splash.” | FOX SEARCHLIGHT

Italian cuisine pairs with complicated feelings, past debauchery and a healthy sex drive for the dramatis personae of the erotic thriller “A Bigger Splash.”

Like the rock ’n’ roll version of “Swimming Pool,” director Luca Guadagnino’s film takes audiences on a trip to a volcanic island with a quartet of personalities trying to figure each other out while, in a way, never actually succeeding. Mostly a meandering character study until a murder mystery oddly is thrown into the mix after 90 minutes, what “A Bigger Splash” does have in its favor is standout acting by Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, who gets to channel her inner Ziggy Stardust.

Swinton’s Marianne Lane is an iconic, arena-ready musician known the world over, even without colorful makeup, but she has hung up her microphone to go on an Italian holiday with her younger boyfriend, documentary filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), and rest her moneymaker following vocal surgery.

Both are in desperate need of a vacation from their everyday lives, though their respite is upended in wild fashion by Marianne’s party-hearty ex-lover and music producer, Harry (Fiennes). He shows up unannounced with Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the young daughter Harry recently found out he had, and Paul seems more bothered by their boisterous presence than Marianne as the newcomers invite random strangers — and themselves — into every aspect of Marianne and Paul’s lives.

Unfortunately, the screenplay by David Kajganich (itself based on Alain Page’s novel “La Piscine”) doesn’t develop the players enough for the audience to care that much about the four vacationers once relationships start souring. The lack of characterization manages to work in the movie’s favor with the not-so-virginal Penelope; a strange, almost incestuous tension exists between her and Harry, making one wonder if they are in fact related, and she’s even used as a diversionary tactic so Harry can spend some quality time with Marianne.

“A Bigger Splash” takes the slow-burn route in digging into the central conflict, with fitful flashbacks glancing into Marianne’s David Bowie-esque rock stardom. Yet with the plot taking its time, Guadagnino lets cinematographer Yorick Le Saux soak the audience with a bevy of beautiful Mediterranean imagery, including Paul and Marianne’s coastal drives and a visit to a busy restaurant impossibly placed on the side of a mountain.

Swinton is phenomenal as the reclusive rocker: Marianne can only whisper for much of the movie because of her condition, so a good amount of her performance is in her expressions and body language. It’s key to understanding her role since Marianne’s persona changes depending on who she’s around: While Paul is a grounding presence, Harry causes the more outgoing aspect of her personality to come alive.

And as the hyperactive houseguest from hell, Fiennes exudes charisma and confidence but with an undercurrent of something close to sinister. Audiences have never quite seen this much of the actor’s body of work, so to speak, and he and Swinton are the main reasons why “A Bigger Splash” is an interesting dip into a pool of intrigue.

★★1⁄2

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by David Kajganich. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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