Cast as an androgynous, Bowie-esque rock star called Marianne Lane, Swinton is first seen stomping on stage in a sequined Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane-style outfit to perform in front of 80,000 screaming fans. “Bowie was definitely an influence,” confirms the film’s Italian director, Luca Guadagnino. “But so was Chrissie Hynde and Róisín Murphy. There were a lot of people we talked about.”
Indeed, it would be wrong to make too much of the connection. Although the opening shot of Swinton on stage is genuine, filmed as it was ahead of a stadium show in Milan by Italian superstar Jovanotti (“It was a really intimate moment,” says Guadagnino of shooting Swinton walking on stage in front of that many people screaming her character’s name) the film isn’t really about her character’s music career. Nor do we hear her perform. Instead, this scene cuts straight to the sun-blasted Italian island of Pantelleria, where Marianne is recovering from a vocal operation that will render her mute for much of the drama that ensues when her ex (played by Ralph Fiennes) arrives with his daughter (played by 50 Shades of Grey’s Dakota Johnson) and disrupts the peaceful idyll she’s created with her current beau, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts).
“That was Tilda’s idea,” says Guadagnino of Marianne’s vocal impairment. “She said: ‘I want to make this movie, but I think she shouldn’t talk. The inarticulacy of Marianne could be a great way to make the interaction with the others more interesting.’”
“I think she was right,” he continues of the film, an enjoyably off-kilter psychosexual drama, loosely based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 French film La Piscine. “You see these forces who are fighting with one another and you see this woman withdrawing from the fight because she can’t engage with it. Her inability to articulate her feelings is actually forcing the others to respond in this way.”
Chief among those responding in weird ways is Fiennes. His character, Harry, is Marianne’s former lover and producer and while he’s jealous of her new relationship, it is his history as the onetime manager of The Rolling Stones that seems to have given him licence to behave in outlandish ways, with one scene in particular requiring Fiennes – never the loosest of actors – to squawk his way through the Stones hit Emotional Rescue. It’s a bit of an eye-opener. “The moment we finished filming it, the crew started to cheer,” recalls Guadagnino, with a smile.
It’s Swinton, though, who is clearly Guadagnino’s muse. Having worked together across various short films, documentaries, adverts and, most prominently, on his acclaimed breakout feature, I Am Love, A Bigger Splash is their tenth collaboration since first meeting in 1995. It’s been rumoured – he can’t confirm casting – that she’ll co-star in his next film too, an English language remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria. “It’s going to be a movie about motherhood and guilt,” he says of the film, which he plans to set in Germany in the late 1970s. “There are going to be a lot of haters, but I hope they’re honest enough to see this new version first.”
• A Bigger Splash is released on 12 February