Like his previous film I Am Love, Guadagnino’s latest runs you through with sensual pleasure. However grey and soggy the weather outside, whatever emotional torpor sits on your soul, however much your ageing bones creak and complain and your old eyes water in the wind, you step out from the cinema with a new delight in life and a grin almost as big and shiny as Ralph Fiennes’ ear-wide gleaming choppers. At least I do. Not that it’s an uncomplicated, sunny film, not at all. I Am Love was just that, a portrait of love so powerful that you were immersed in it, experiencing rather than observing. Here there are more complicated emotions and serious issues at work.
On the Italian island of Pantelleria, world famous rock star, rather Bowie-like Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is ensconced with her younger lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Marianne is recuperating from serious voice damage and is practically mute, signalling her conversations in public with elegant gestures and in private with a tiny close-up (and rather erotic) whispering. Along, uninvited, and not very welcome, come her former manager and ex, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), with his new-found teenage daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) to stay for a while. Harry’s arrival must be one of the most explosive, alarming and funniest on film for quite some time. He’s all teeth and smiles, bounding with energy, vainglorious, oozing egocentric enthusiasm. Poolside tales of the old days and his input into the Stones’ albums at first intensely annoy – us as well – then begin to wind in the females, as he breaks into song, strips off and splashes around in the pool like an unstoppable, oversized puppy. Paul is not impressed.
Over the next few days sexual dynamics kick in in the way you expect, and it is clear that Harry is after reclaiming Marianne, whom he claims he ‘gave’ to Paul 6 years ago when he introduced them. The languid heat is palpable, the luxury of their lives sickly but alluring, as the three wealthy folk do little but look beautiful, bicker, make love, put on and take off expensive and elegant clothes, and eat. Meanwhile Penelope looks on, amused, self-contained, observant. The camera zooms dizzily, lingers and probes and lingers on faces and body parts, ranging over gorgeous but arid landscapes, enhanced by a stunning soundtrack ranging from the Rolling Stones to Verdi. Complementing Fiennes’s bounding energy, Tilda Swinton is marvellous. Gawky and elegant, likeable and natural and other-worldly all at once, she’s definitely one of those ‘the camera loves’ – you might even say makes love to. Cinematographer Yorick le Saux was also responsible for I Am Love, the gorgeous Only Lovers Left Alive, and Julia, so is a bit of a Tilda specialist.
The film is a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine, a more straightforward darkening sexual drama, with Alain Delon as a brooding and excitable Paul and Romy Schneider as Marianne, but this film has both more humour and more troubling dimensions. Pantelleria may ring a bell for you. It’s one of the Italian islands where migrants from North Africa land, and as the film progresses there are more and more sideways glances into this alternative world. One of Harry’s more egregious remarks, having been told the outline they can see across the sea is Tunisia, is ‘Ah! You can almost smell the jasmine!’. Ironic, when what you are more likely to smell is washed up rotting corpses and sweaty fear. Paul and Penelope, out for a walk which neither of them is sure of the possibly erotic purpose of, encounter a group of migrants shiftily gathered round an old building, and on a subsequent trip to town three of them pass close by a small pen on the main street in which a large group of immigrants are confined, trying to have a kick-about. The sweaty heat and grimy setting are not so sensual here. Ironically it’s this presence of the other world, like a nasty smell, which brings our heroes effete lives into raw relief but which also lets them off the hook when tragedy happens