Luca Guadagnino’s first feature, “I Am Love,” was so self-consciously and fastidiously composed that its formal perfection suffocated the story. His second, again with Tilda Swinton and also gorgeously photographed, is laid-back in comparison. The result, dominated by a bravura performance from Ralph Fiennes, is more fun.
Swinton is Marianne, a rock star (whose fleeting flashback performances suggest a female Bowie) who’s damaged her vocal chords and is silently nursing them back to health on the volcanic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean, alongside her filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They are lounging in naked, highly-sexed seclusion in a beautiful villa, when a phone call announces the unexpected arrival of Harry (Fiennes), a record producer and Marianne’s former lover, flying in from Rome with his newfound daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). The idyll is about to be rudely interrupted.
Harry is a tornado, talking non-stop, dominating their plans, cajoling, flirting, provoking, the life of the party but not someone you’d want in your home. By the end of the evening, however, Marianne has little option but to invite both him and the silent, bored 22-year-old to stay.
Over the next few days histories are revealed, some in flashback, including the bonds and underlying tensions between Marianne, Harry and Paul. There is much swimming in the pool (which Harry quickly makes his domain), fabulous food is prepared and consumed (a pleasing feature of “I Am Love”), the island is explored and battle lines are drawn as it becomes apparent that Harry wants his lover back.
Marianne’s rock star identity is not that integral to any of this – she could be any powerful or famous person taking a break from the limelight – other than the presentation of Harry. The producer is nostalgically chained to music and his past exploits, which is evident from one of the film’s most energetic and entertaining scenes, in which he recounts to his daughter his influence over a Rolling Stones recording (the youngster gives every indication that she has no idea who the Stone are), before performing a brilliantly silly dance routine to “Emotional Rescue.”
Harry is more enamored with Marianne’s fame than she is. Later, the pair enter an empty karaoke bar. Since she can barely whisper, he dominates the microphone; moments later the bar is packed. Though it’s her celebrity that has filled it, he is the one hogging the floor.
Fiennes is in the comic form of his life at the moment, whether it’s his heroic and amorous concierge Gustave H. of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (whose most significant conquest is an ancient guest played by Swinton), or his anarchist intellectual John Tanner in Shaw’s “Man and Superman” on the London stage. These two characters share with Harry a tremendous vitality, charisma and a love of their own voice – which in Fiennes’ hands, also means impeccable delivery. Here, as with those performances, the actor makes the air fizz with delight.
What Harry alone of these three possesses is the narcissism of the rock and roller, and a willingness to create havoc. With his daughter up to no good also, saying little but with her sights fixed on Paul, this can only end badly.
With Fiennes’ force of nature so dominant, the other actors have their work cut out for them. Swinton may have the added disadvantage of not speaking, but she’s a class act who can cope well enough; and it’s fascinating to observe her drip feed Marianne’s personality and state of mind through face and body language alone.
Both Schoenaerts and Johnson are making their second appearances on the Lido. He follows a fairly stiff, decent character in “The Danish Girl” with another – in fact, at one point Harry actually riles at Marianne, “I gave you a stiff.” And you’d give the same description to his Gabriel Oak in “Far From The Madding Crowd.” The Belgian needs to flex his muscles. I’m not entirely sure that Johnson has anything more to give at the moment. She had a chance to follow her sympathetic characters from “50 Shades of Grey” and “Black Mass” with a look at her dark side; instead of mystery and mischief, we get only vapidity.
Taking his title from Hockney’s iconic painting of a Californian swimming pool, Guadagnino offers up something as hard to define as the painting itself. This is part comedy of manners, part romantic drama, which becomes darker and more mysterious as Guadagnino shuffles his pack towards a highly satisfying twist. Unfortunately, the film then keeps going, becoming silly, diluting the good, and suggesting that the director still doesn’t understand that less is more.