Inspired by Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider as a beautiful couple whose idyllic getaway on the French Riviera is interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative ex-boyfriend (Maurice Ronet) and his daughter (Jane Birkin), this beguiling remake relocates to the Sicilian island of Pantellerria. Rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her younger filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts) are enjoying a quiet life in their beautiful Italian villa. Marianne is recovering from an operation to repair her damaged vocal chords and is unable to talk. Paul is pretty quiet so they happily spend their days lounging around in the sun and communicating through unspoken physical intimacy.
Their blissful solitude is ruined by her ex-Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arriving unexpectedly with his newly discovered daughter Penny (Dakota Johnson) and suddenly there’s a lot of talking at the villa. Most of it coming from Harry, a music industry spiv with an ability to zone in on what makes something work, whether it is a record he’s producing or the relationships between the people around him. There were hints Ralph Fiennes had a knack for comedy and all-out weirdness in his performance as an over-familiar butler in Bernard and Doris (2006, Bob Balaban), but with Monsieur Gustave H in Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson) and now this he’s transformed his reputation as a miserable stiff-upper lipped English Patient type.
In the face of Fiennes manically engaging performance the rest of the cast have no choice but to show restraint. A long time collaborator with Guadagnino on several low budget short films and features culminating in the sublime I Am Love (2010), Swinton’s burnt-out Bowie-esque rock star is happy out of the limelight but still beguiled by Harry and there’s still a chance he might win her back. Schoenarts is great at strong silent types, uneasy in their own skin and he simmers quietly in the background. Johnson is the wild card thrown into the mix, and her passive aggressive behaviour and her unusual relationship with Harry unsettles both Marianne and Paul.
The early scenes in the film emphasise the beautiful landscape and the actors bodies as the camera lingers over their naked torsos. While the Mediterranean lifestyle led by the group certainly looks seductive, there are portents hinting at the darkness to come. A menacing-looking black whip snake moves across the villa’s patio, Fiennes tears the guts out of the fish he’s preparing for a meal, and at one point Penelope briefly goes missing by a rock pool echoing Monica Vitti’s fate in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960).
Some may find the shift in tone in the final act hard to reconcile especially as there’s an added element of farce thanks to the arrival of a police inspector whose incompetence is played for laughs. Even the weather turns melodramatic. The sky darkens and the film moves from bright warm colours to dull blues and greys. Rain lashes the island. I’m actually surprised given Pantellerria is volcanic they didn’t have the damned thing erupt. I appreciated the film’s ambiguous denouement though. It’s refusal to explain why certain characters behaved as they did or why they were even there. As with I Am Love the film deals with seemingly close relationships tearing apart and the effects are shattering.