Tilda Swinton stars as David Bowie-esque rockstar Marianne Lane, who spends her days off recovering her voice on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria with her toy boy documentary maker, Matthias Schoenaerts’ Paul. Yet, all peace is lost when ex lover Harry, played by an always-excellent Ralph Fiennes, shows up unannounced with a daughter, Dakota Johnson, no one knew about. When past problems begin to raise their heads again, tempers begin to fray.
Luca Guadagnino has assembled a formidable cast for his first film since 2009’s I Am Love. Ralph Fiennes walks the fine line between being infectiously hilarious and annoyingly irritating as motor-mouthed music producer Harry. He comes across as the kind of bloke who invited his own mates to a party he wasn’t invited to or the uncle who always gets drunk at the family Christmas dinner. He is loud, crass and offers up sound bites like “Europe’s a grave” while relieving himself on an actual grave and Fiennes appear to be having the most fun he has had since In Bruges.Everything that comes out of Dakota Johnson’s mouth sounds like a sound bite from a perfume advert. Johnson feels like she is hanging for dear life onto everyone else’s coat tails but struggles to keep up. She spends the whole film lingering in the background, only to act as the catalyst of chaos when it’s convenient for the plot, rather than having any real purpose. The same can be said for Swinton’s Marianne who is rendered mute for most of the film to only be used as a trophy for whoever wins Paul and Harry’s dick sizing competition.
Then there is Schoenaerts, an actor who has quietly crept onto the world platform and is subtly building an impressive CV that has quickly established him as one of the finest talents of his generation. And here, he is as impressive as ever managing to outshine both Fiennes and Swinton with little effort.
Guadagnino’s direction is a mixed bag. His shots of the beautiful Sicilian island are a feast for the eyes but other than that, and the odd stylistic zoom shot, there isn’t much else going on. Compared to his contemporaries, such as Matteo Garrone, Guadagnino fails to deliver. Instead, he seems to be running on autopilot, offering up pedestrian and lifeless direction.The narrative is laced with flashbacks centering on the hedonistic rockstar days that contrast well with the present, but they become few and far between as the film goes on. Instead, Guadagnino attempts to plum his characters emotional depths and in places it works, Paul’s past addiction and attempted suicide is the film’s most interesting aspect, but nothing else hits home. Harry and Marianne’s relationship, Harry and Penelope’s incestuous relationship feels like an unnecessary addition to the film’s strong string of sexual tension. All this bogs down the second act, halting proceedings to a near, and very dull, stand still.
However, the mood and tone is swiftly altered in the film’s concluding half hour, allowing the film to finally find some purpose, rather than just being overindulgent dawdling, eating and swimming. Sadly though, the gearshift doesn’t come quick enough and while it amps the film up to eleven till the credits roll, it’s never elevated to a level that justifies its cast. For a film with this talent, it’s disappointing to report that it’s not as good as it ought to be, nor as compelling as it feels it should be.