A Bigger Splash

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Luca Guadagnino’s relatively nondescript early films gave little indication of the level of artistry he displayed with 2009’s I Am Love. Providing a sumptuous, sensory overload, this masterfully orchestrated drama was compelling on many levels, including in its performances, led by the fearless Tilda Swinton, and its brash, if often overbearing use of carefully chosen music by John Adams. Now, six years later, the director’s delayed follow up A Bigger Splash (2015) arrives with high expectations attached.

On a scenic, volcanic Italian island, a barely-able-to-speak glamour indie rock star Marianne Lane (Swinton), is resting her over-strained voice whilst holed up in a villa with younger boyfriend Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). But now her former producer, good friend, and occasional lover Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) is flying in from the mainland with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Fanning) for a visit that will fatefully upset the locals’ dynamic and bring the past into collision with the future.

In general, Guadagnino’s film delivers in recreating some of the stylistic flair of I Am Love. Though less excessive in aesthetic obsessions, the film immediately grabs hold and the exotic locale and sheer bravura of Fiennes’s uninhibited performance take it to another level. There are moments when the love triangle aspect of the plot flirts with enticing elucidation. Deep undercurrents of unease threaten to break through to the surface though often, just when Guadagnino seems on the verge of taking these characters to the brink of a shocking transfiguration, he frustratingly pulls them back into a more conventional shape. His offbeat, diverse musical choices often strike distractingly discordant notes as well, though Harry’s very physical sing along with a Rolling Stones track is inspired in its wild extroversion.

Guadagnino’s trio of actors all make a deep impression with the more subtle nuances evoked by Swinton and Schoenaerts just as impressive as Fiennes and his brash externalisation of Harry’s base desires and emotional greed. Fanning is all cool glances and icy aversion but her relative mediocrity, thankfully, has little bearing on the trajectory of Guadagnino’s drama.

The chief failing of David Kajganich’s screenplay – based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine – is its wretched inability to find a satisfying ending. In fact, the final half-hour, beyond the staging of a key event, almost seems to have been ad-libbed or, at least, hastily devised mere moments before shooting, so haphazard and fluid are its tone and structure. It’s a bit of a mess actually, and seriously detracts from what had been, until that point, a mostly riveting, self-contained chamber drama alive with unpredictability.

 

Youth

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Relying on vignettes that surrender his characters to recollections disparaged and tainted by the vexations of old age, Paolo Sorrentino’s second English language film sets its aim lower than his recent Oscar winner The Great Beauty (2013). In Youth (2015), which takes us to a stunning locale, a mist-enshrouded Swiss hotel abutting snow-capped mountains, Sorrentino introduces his two main characters informally. A former famous composer Fred Ballinger, (Michael Caine), is being visited by a representative of Her Majesty, politely enquiring if he would like to briefly interrupt his retirement to conduct a concert of his ‘Simple Songs’ for a gala occasion. Elsewhere, Fred’s best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a director in his waning days, has convened with a group of young writers, tossing around ideas for his next project.

With his usual, meticulously conceived visual set-ups, Sorrentino employs the vignette to great effect. There’s no attempt to over-involve us with detailed versions of the lives of Fred and Mick. We’re offered snippets of their internal processes at work, but most of the joy of immersion in Youth comes from the dry wit, the predilection for pondering the past, present and future as though they’re individual worlds, each open to being randomly juxtaposed for the sake of enrichening Sorrentino’s separation of scenes.

Peripheral characters regularly enter the fray, including Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who’s been abandoned by her boyfriend – Mick’s son – and a young actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), suffering existential angst after only ever receiving public recognition for a single lame commercial success that he resents for leaving him hopelessly typecast. There’s a Maradona-like former football star treading heavily around the grounds, whilst a couple glimpsed only in silence in each other’s company provoke mild consternation for the curious Fred and Mick. Various moments are inserted for comic value, for their ability to serve as meaningful refrains; others still are used to break up the pacing and dimension of scenes.

All of these interactions are like snapshots, moments from short stories that don’t necessarily add up to much – laced as they are with a degree of melancholy, piquancy or irritation – but bring a distinctive characteristic to the narrative nonetheless. In terms of a literary equivalent, there’s the feel of something like Paul Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu about Sorrentino’s film in its overall arc being inverted through standalone moments that reflect the author’s themes in miniature.

There’s no great profundity to be gleaned from Youth; as good as it is, this is lesser Sorrentino, but a pared-back, contemplative gem even for its lack of ambition. Here revealed is a director at total ease with his process, returning to a form of storytelling that demands as much or as little as its audiences demands from its narrative through-lines and idiosyncratic blind turns.     

Sorrentino establishes a deliberate pace early on and simply trusts that either his audience will become locked onto the same wavelength or bail. For me, he’s a director who can rarely be faulted; even his weakest film, the overwrought and convoluted Il Divo (2008), has a stunning cinematic style to keep you hooked regardless of narrative threads losing focus. He’s a remarkable craftsman, constantly challenging his own standards of creativity and Youth is no different, each set-up feeling as organically derived from its scenario as can be. No part of Sorrentino’s frame is neglected, ensuring that something striking is always on show, whether because of his depth of composition or oddly slanted perspectives.

The performances in Youth are a joy; Caine, for example, hasn’t been offered a role as good as this in quite a while. He’s not asked to expand beyond his range, certainly, but he brings the weight of years lived to his interpretation of Ballinger, whilst Keitel is similarly sublime and toned down as the director aiming to rekindle his creative passions; he attempts this through conquering uncharted territory before having to truthfully come to terms with his long diminished skills and fading reputation. A cameo from a heavily made up Jane Fonda as Mick’s long-ago muse provides decisive in opening Mick’s eyes; like many scenes, it feels lacking in discipline and a little rough around the edges, but is full of bittersweet truths that are in line with Sorrentino’s overall objective for Youth. That is, to offer humour, spice and a tinge of regret in what is ultimately a half-serious lamentation for the past – a time and a feeling mired in the memorable and forgettable, each as impossible to evade or disremember as the other.

 

 

Youth opens in Australian cinemas on December 26th.

 

The Mafia Only Kills in Summer

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A bittersweet coming-of-age, romantic comedy, Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s debut The Mafia Only Kills in Shadow (2014), reveals a far deeper and more serious love for the Sicilian city of Palermo as it progresses. Taking the lead of the grown-up Arturo under his ridiculous shortened moniker ‘Pif’, Diliberto’s role is a continuation of his earlier incarnation’s hapless youthful endeavours to attract the attention of his classroom crush Flora (played with little charisma as an adult by Cristiano Capatondi), who is unduly influenced by Arturo’s more charming best friend.

Much of the film is overlaid with Arturo’s narration which lends a welcome personal perspective of a life lived in the long shadow cast by the nefarious crime organisation, whilst wallowing in some overly sentimental reminiscences tinged with amusing self-deprecation. However Arturo coming-of-age is necessarily related alongside that of the turmoil of living in a city ruled with a bloody ruthlessness by the Mafia. Sporadically, and to discomfiting effect, Diliberto injects moments of serene seriousness in signposting his character’s youth with horribly memorable news footage of esteemed members of society, like policemen and judges, being caught in the crossfire of the Mafia wars.

Strange contradictions abound in Diliberto’s meandering, sometimes annoyingly trite film. He remains determined to play the nostalgic angle from duel perspectives and though it doesn’t always work, the ultimate payoff is an admittedly eerily moving tribute to Palermo’s character, resoluteness and a memorial for its fallen innocents. That Diliberto can wring such a genuine emotional response using the film’s blatantly trivial romantic story – one that never feels credibly established – as the framework for those final 15 minutes is quite a feat considering the variable quality of his semi-autobiographical film to that point.