Parthenope review – Paolo Sorrentino contrives a facile, bikini-clad self-parody

<span>Haunted … Celeste Dalla Porta in the title role.</span><span>Photograph: Gianni Fiorito</span>
Haunted … Celeste Dalla Porta in the title role.Photograph: Gianni Fiorito

Paolo Sorrentino, for over 20 years one of the most vibrant and distinctive film-makers, is coming close to self-parody with this new film, which conceitedly announces its own beauty at every moment and finally drifts into an unearned elegiac torpor. It’s an exercise in style, with much bikini-clad gorgeousness and languorous image-making. There are some very exotic touches and though the camera movements are less hyperactive and angular than in his early work, this does not necessarily signal a new maturity; the lessening of flourishes might simply expose something rather facile.

We are in permanently sunny Naples and Parthenope, played by Celeste Dalla Porta with an unchanging Mona Lisa smile, is a young woman from a well-off Neapolitan background who is haunted by a tragic incident in her past, when her two older brothers were both incestuously obsessed by her beauty. Now she is destined possibly to be an academic anthropologist, as her professor (Silvio Orlando) is profoundly impressed by her intellectual brilliance. He himself is a shy, divorced man living with his son, who is unseen and evidently has some kind of burdensome medical condition. Yet when Parthenope finally does lay eyes on this son, and reacts with spiritual rapture, it is one of the film’s most tiresome and fatuous moments of sub-magic-realism.

Parthenope’s alternative to academe is going into acting. To that end she approaches a Norma Desmond-type retired star turned acting coach called Flora Malva (Isabella Ferrari), whose bizarre eccentricity is alienating – as is the arrogance and disillusion of an actual Naples-born star, Greta Cool (Luisa Ranieri), who returns to her hometown to insult the inhabitants. Perhaps Parthenope’s destiny is to be an aesthete, a devotee of beauty, especially her own, and she has a awestruck encounter with her favourite writer, John Cheever – drunk, depressed and droll, and played in cameo by Gary Oldman. Yet with her emotional development paralysed by this family tragedy of her teen years, who is the man who can satisfy her romantically? Perhaps it is the hideous Bishop of San Gennaro (Peppe Lanzetta), who every year presides over the liquifying blood miracle and is the subject of Parthenope’s anthropological researches.

This is a film that keeps on emphasising its own purported richness and depth, but it’s not clear that this contrived tale really has very much of either, and the preposterous and dreamy-fabular quality of everything rather forbids the ordinary emotional investment needed to feel moved by Parthenope’s appearance as an older woman at the very end. Of course, Sorrentino’s way with a camera will always be intriguing and exhilarating to some degree. Yet Parthenope simply floats complacently across the screen, like a two-hour ad for some impossibly expensive cologne.

• Parthenope screened at the Cannes film festival.