A former rock star named Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), are enjoying a sojourn on an Italian island; Marianne is recovering from throat surgery, and quiet time in a secluded villa is a grand prescription. But the unexpected arrival of Marianne’s former lover, louche music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his American daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), disrupts the rehab. As expected when clothes are so easily doffed and wine pours freely, tensions quickly surface; never mind the languid days, the pot is on the boil. Despite the presence of two of Marianne’s lovers, the dramatic set-up is less a love triangle than a fluid rectangle, where the balance of power waxes and wanes between the four corners.
Luca Guadagnino’s film is a tantalizing slice of sunny Euro decadence, a comedy of manners that occasionally slides into a broadly painted critique of privilege (and likely a jab from the Italian director at cavalier Britons treating his country as an exotic playground). It’s not just the fabulous villa these privileged people have, but the economic and psychic space to screw up and blithely carry on. It’s fun to watch, but the film never delivers much more than a top-notch melodrama, with its “serious issues” (addiction, depression, the sad plight of refugees in the Mediterranean) scattered into scenes of pool-lounging and boozy dancing.
While both are easy on the eye, Schoenaerts is a bit of a droop and Johnson struggles to make Penelope anything more than a catalytic nymphette. But our two A-listers are captivating: Fiennes is hilarious as the boorish, manic Harry, and Swinton manages a couple of impossible tasks — remaining silent for most of film and wearing absurd resort wear with élan.