VENICE — Are we our best or worst selves when we go on vacation? Sure, these trips are taken with good intentions, but when you’re determined to relax, that determination can look an awful lot like work. Throw in bad weather, a crying child or downed hotel Wi-Fi, and sometimes you arrive back home in a more bedraggled state than when you left.
When it comes to chronicling just how easily a vacation can push people to the edge, Hollywood has been racking up a lot of frequent-flier miles lately. The recent spate of film and TV projects about good trips gone bad even led the Vulture film critic Alison Willmore to coin the phrase “resort horror,” a term that could apply not just to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old,” an actual horror film about rapidly aging beachgoers, but also to HBO’s “The White Lotus” and Hulu’s “Nine Perfect Strangers,” two limited series about punctured privilege in some of the most beautiful getaways on earth.
Isn’t that just the way: We’ve been so anxious to leave our homes over the last year and a half, and now Hollywood is telling us that escapism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This has all been on my mind after spending the last several days at the Venice Film Festival, a place so gorgeous and glamorous that to lodge even a single complaint (about the festival’s obtuse ticketing system, perhaps) makes you feel something like the whining, entitled bro played by Jake Lacy in “The White Lotus.” But many of the high-profile films here have been dabbling in resort horror, too, like “Sundown,” with Tim Roth vacationing in Acapulco — a colleague dubbed it “The Even-Whiter Lotus” — and especially “The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut and the beneficiary of plenty of Oscar chatter.
Adapted from the novel by Elena Ferrante, “The Lost Daughter” casts Olivia Colman as Leda, a British professor who’s decided to take a solo trip to Greece. Upon her arrival, Leda is presented with two potential love interests: Ed Harris, the wiry caretaker for her Airbnb, and “Normal People” breakout Paul Mescal as a flirty cabana boy in short shorts. All that, and she’s staying right by a nice, quiet beach. Sounds ideal!
And it is, as the setup for resort horror. Fairly soon, things both big and small start to go wrong: The fruit bowl in Leda’s apartment spoils dramatically, a huge, screeching bug appears on the pillow next to her, and a pine cone is hurled at Leda from the heavens as though the Greek gods had finally found a worthy target for their abuse. Even worse, her quiet beach is invaded by a sprawling, squawking family from Queens that will not leave Leda alone.
That brood includes young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson, by now a resort-horror veteran thanks to “A Bigger Splash”) and nosy Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), who can’t understand why Leda, a mother in her 40s, would want to vacation alone. “Children are a crushing responsibility,” replies Leda, and you can tell she wants to say something even worse. By the time she flees the beach with a doll impulsively stolen from Nina’s daughter, it’s clear that Leda has some issues about motherhood that even a solo trip can’t help but trigger.
This, too, has been a recurring theme at Venice: In “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon,” starring Kate Hudson as a stripper mom, and Pedro Almodóvar’s switched-at-birth drama “Parallel Mothers,” female characters get honest about their lack of maternal instincts in a way that still feels all too rare in Hollywood. But none of those films burrow into it quite like “The Lost Daughter,” where we get flashbacks to a young Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) at wits’ end with her two shrieking daughters. Can the film earn a best-sound Oscar nomination simply for making children’s screams sound so torturous?
As I watched Colman come undone on the beach, I wondered what’s behind the recent surge in these bad-trip projects, since they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. (This Ferrante adaptation even arrives not long after we saw a “White Lotus” character reading her books.) Willmore posited that resort horror, with its wide open beaches and exclusive clientele, is easier to shoot in the Covid era; I also just think that rich people in Hollywood go on lots of vacations. They write what they know!
And maybe vacation just presents an irresistible collision of expectations vs. reality, or a crucible where days of self-reflection can take a haunting turn. You know that Leda won’t get out of Greece before she confronts her buried back story, and perhaps that’s the true moral of all these resort-horror entries: It’s natural to want to get away from it all, but don’t forget that a vacation requires you to bring your own baggage.