I enjoyed I Am Love, the 2009 Luca Guadagnino film starring the inimitable Tilda Swinton, but my big beef with that movie, wonderfully shot as it was, was that it featured zero memorable characters or performances other than Swinton. Not an issue with this movie, a languid, sun-kissed study of increasingly fractured relationships within a quartet of characters hanging around a secluded Italian island.
Swinton plays Marianne, a famous rock star now confined to silence and hushed whispers because of damaged vocal chords. There are brief but thrilling flashes of her past where she walks out on stadium stage in front of thousands of screaming fans, looking like a divine mix between David Bowie and Chrissie Hynde, that made me wish the movie showed more of that Marianne. Now on a forced break, she recuperates on the island with her younger filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), until their solitude is interrupted by Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a record producer and Marianne’s ex, who brings along his newly discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Fanning).
Harry is a force of nature and one of those people who are both insanely charismatic and utterly exhausting to be around: self-centred, loud, bombastic, larger-than-life, a man of insatiable appetites who makes you reconsider the virtue of that old “live every moment like it’s your last” motto. It’s easily one of Fiennes’ best roles and that’s saying something. There’s a scene where Harry puts on a Rolling Stones record and does his best Mick Jagger impression to the sounds of Emotional Rescue that makes for the most hilarious and memorable dancing scene since Ex Machina. It doesn’t take too long for Harry to reveal his true intentions for visiting – he wants to coax Marianne out of what he unflatteringly calls a hibernation with a dull square boyfriend and back to him.
Before the tensions rise and come to a head, the film plays almost like a travelogue, all warm summer evenings and quaint Italian village life and lots and lots of sudden close-ups of food. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that paid this much attention to food and enjoyment of food. This being a European-directed film, there’s also lots of casual male nudity and that particularly erotic way of showing bodies, male and female, that you just don’t see in an American film. While Fiennes is arguably the standout, Tilda Swinton is also marvellous and her strange, now-ugly, now-beautiful presence is always fascinating to watch (her clothes in this film are great as well). I’ve now liked Matthias Schoenaerts in everything I’ve seen him in, and here he gives layers to what is probably the film’s least flashy, most introverted character. Dakota Fanning’s Penelope is the film’s most opaque player and it’s fun to watch her in a role that doesn’t milk her natural sense of innocence – Penelope is carnal and a piece of work not unlike her father. There’s a subplot involving North African refugees, which is timely considering the current situation in Europe, but it felt a bit like a weird dissonant element in a film that was all about personal drama. Otherwise though, I greatly enjoyed spending time with these flawed decadent characters.