© Jane Freebury
Sipping daiquiris, feasting on seafood, skinny dipping in the pool, away from it all on a remote Sicilian island. Just perfetto. Director Luca Guadagnino has exchanged the chill of wealthy establishment Milan in I Am Love, for a spell in Italy’s south with an odd assortment of foreigners vacationing in the summer sun.
In this idyllic location, in carefree mood, a pair of lovers, Marianne Lane (Swinton) who is recuperating from laryngeal surgery, and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are alone in a villa and with a housekeeper to take care of their needs.
Not for long, though. Not after Marianne’s old boyfriend Harry arrives with his daughter in tow.
With his tendency to play characters who are repressed or morose (The Constant Gardener) or malevolent and criminal (Schindler’s List), Ralph Fiennes is a revelation in this role. The actor we are used to on screen is almost unrecognisable here, filling the screen with his rambunctious, restless male energy. It’s a brilliant transformation.
We probably get to see more of him than is absolutely necessary. There is a lot of nudity, what you would expect really, but mostly when Harry is in view – and it tells us something of the man. Rock star Marianne, mostly mute as she is resting her voice, is the statuesque alabaster trophy for which Paul and Harry inevitably compete.
Director Guadagnino is mesmerised by Swinton, and has announced he will work with her again soon. He is not the only Italian who is fascinated by her. Although she is a remarkably bold actress, her turn as androgynous rock star in the mould of Bowie or Jagger is a bit of a stretch. There are only the briefest scenes of her in a glittery jumpsuit waving to thousands of fans and they are not hugely convincing, as though Guadagnino wasn’t quite convinced of it himself.
Way more relevant is the film’s intersection with contemporary politics when Paul and Harry’s daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) come face to face with a group of African men who have arrived clandestinely on Pantelleria’s rocky shore.
The island idyll begins to seem perilously vulnerable. Africa is tangibly close. The sirocco brings unwelcome hot and sandy winds and there are people arriving on its shores who seek a better life in Europe. In contrast with the hints about the past excesses of the rock era it is a potent real-world statement.
Long after this party is over, young Penelope remains an enduring mystery. Why did Harry bring her along and what business did she have there? Was Harry her real father? The karaoke with her dad ‘could be misconstrued’, after all. We will never know.
Since I Am Love, we would expect a Guadagnino film to have a sumptuous look, glamorous in a good way, however there is a certain awkwardness to his narrative and character development. This time, however, Harry is the glue that holds it all together, as he prances about like a Bacchanalian satyr in the summer heat. It’s good he came to visit after all.