Behind a softly lit control panel, hushed and expectant, the director Luca Guadagnino sat with editors and listened for breath noises at the start of his new film. The studio was dark. The screen, too large for those assembled, glowed. Outside, a hard late-winter rain fell on Rome, joining with the patter of an onscreen storm, as if the line between the real world and the imagined one were weakening, bleeding, beginning to leak.
“Ho perso molti respiri,” Guadagnino murmured. Then, calling to the mixer at the controls, “We missed a breath.” Onscreen, an old man and a young woman were speaking in a state of high alarm. The editors were adding into the mix passing noises of human exchange: footfalls, paper rustlings, a little gasp, a sigh.
“After he closes the last curtain, he’s panting, but I don’t hear him breathing,” Guadagnino told the film’s editor, Walter Fasano.
In the script, the young woman, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is visiting a psychoanalyst. She is drenched from a storm outside. Rain has always had a special significance for Guadagnino, because he spent the first five years of his life in Ethiopia, and it rained there all the time. “My dreams are very aquatic,” he explains. He was born two months prematurely, and links water with the womb.
The scene played again. Guadagnino fussed over the cutting of the dialogue. “The line from Chloë—”
Fasano quoted, “ ‘If they knew I was here . . . ’ ”
“It’s very bad,” Guadagnino said with a frown.
He was dressed in a gray woollen hoodie and loose navy pants, cable-knit like a sweater. He is slightly more than six feet tall, and gangly, with the posture of a bearskin tossed across a chair: he slumps and drapes and dangles. For some years now, he has worn a beard, gray-dusted, and a fizz of thinning brown hair. His manner is both limpid and assured. “I think we’re going to be very good friends,” he sometimes says on meeting people for the first time. “It is inevitable—I am Italian.” He refers to those he hasn’t met yet in the courtly style of the Times (“Mr. Spielberg,” “Mr. Tortora”), a spirit of deference which his work belies. Guadagnino has lived almost all his life in Italy, but his feature films have consistently been in English since 2009, when he released “Io Sono l’Amore” (“I Am Love”), announcing a voice that was sensuous, elegant, fervid, and, some critics have suggested, stylish to excess. In “A Bigger Splash” (2016), he assembled Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Tilda Swinton to perform a tense and deadly four-point human drama at a wind-stricken villa. His next feature, “Call Me by Your Name,” drawn from the André Aciman novel, centers on a love affair between a young scholar, Oliver (Armie Hammer), and a seventeen-year-old music prodigy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet). “So much of that movie was about being young and constantly submerged in water,” Chalamet says.
“I’d like to hire you, but there’s no more room at the bottom.”
Guadagnino recalls realizing that “Call Me by Your Name” would be a hit when his fifteen-year-old niece, who’d never seemed remotely interested in his work, texted to say that she and her friends were dying to see it. The film won over both the Hollywood establishment and a demographic that Guadagnino calls, with a nod to his niece, “kids and girls”: youths stirred by a tender story of long-lashed young men falling in love over a summer filled with midnight dancing, volleyball, and Bach.
Guadagnino did not expect his new feature, out at the end of this month, to have the same effect on kids and girls. “Suspiria,” loosely a remake of Dario Argento’s horror film from 1977, is set at a dance company, in a divided Berlin, during the cold months. It follows a shy Mennonite girl from Ohio, Susie (Johnson), as she joins the troupe. Haunted by the disappearance of a politically insurrectionary dancer (Moretz) and various creepy feelings, Susie tries to understand the company’s secrets—even as she gives herself to its brilliant, opaque mistress, Madame Blanc (Swinton), and the sinister-seeming power of her dance.
The movie looks at first like an outlier in the landscape of Guadagnino’s work. Like the Elio character in “Call Me by Your Name,” Guadagnino, who is forty-seven, was a skinny gay teen-ager during the eighties, and many people took that film to be a veiled memoir. In fact, Guadagnino says, he felt no more connection with the story than with any other he’d put on the screen. “Suspiria” is different. He has hoped to make the film for more than thirty years. Where Argento’s version, set at a dance school, was brightly colored and campy, Guadagnino builds his setting unironically, in layers, from a Fassbinderian backdrop of browns and blues and grays. The movie reaches downward, to Germany’s ugly past treatment of bodies, and upward, to a mental realm of ritual and symbol: Freudian, creative, and occult. And it tells a coming-of-age story about mastering creative and destructive strength. “Suspiria” is very much a horror film: flesh is ripped; bones are broken; heads explode. Guadagnino also calls it the most personal movie that he has made.
In the editing room the next day, Guadagnino was in one of his favorite states: surrounded at work by an eclectic group of friends. “Wow!” he exclaimed as new visitors arrived, rushing forward to embrace them. “Look who’s here!” (“There are always people visiting on set—always,” Dakota Johnson reports. “It’s absurd.”)
Although Guadagnino never went to film school, there is something of the dorm-room atelier in the way he fills his life and his credits with trusted comrades, handing out filmmaking tasks like chores. The writer of one film might do marketing for another. Of three male actors listed in the main credits of “Suspiria” (the cast is otherwise thirty-eight women), one is a distinguished cinematographer and another is an architectural photographer. The third—Lutz Ebersdorf, the actor playing the old psychoanalyst, about whom Guadagnino avidly sought all visitors’ opinions—had never been seen on a set before. “Luca’s approach can be very disorienting for new collaborators,” says Fasano, who has been the film editor on all of Guadagnino’s features but also, variously, a co-director, an assistant director, a screenwriter, and a composer. Guadagnino’s approach transgresses many of the industry’s usual hierarchies. “Normally, as a writer in Hollywood, you’re hired as a kind of builder—it’s your work ethic that’s valued,” David Kajganich, the screenwriter of “Suspiria” and “A Bigger Splash,” says. “With Luca, I was part of the prep conversations. I was part of the casting conversations. I was part of conversations about location. Actually writing the script is probably one-fifth of our collaboration.”
That afternoon’s passing circle included Carlo Antonelli, formerly the editor of Italian Rolling Stone, Italian Wired, and Italian GQ but also a Guadagnino actor, writer, and producer; Lisa Muskat, who produces indie films; and Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, a young Kuwaiti aristocrat whom Guadagnino met at Fashion Week. Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, whom he refers to as “my sentimental partner,” circulated briskly through the studio all day. They met ten years ago, on the set of “I Am Love,” for which Cito Filomarino was an assistant director. Now a sandy-haired thirty-one-year-old, Cito Filomarino released his own first feature in 2015, and is about to shoot his English-language début.
Guadagnino has never dated anyone who isn’t a director. He says that he views the common turf as the basis for creative partnership, not as a threat. He and Cito Filomarino mostly agree about movies, except the ones they see on airplanes—the cabin air makes Guadagnino sentimental, and unduly prone to weep over treacly turns of plot—and they pitch in on each other’s work. “I truly don’t understand competition,” Guadagnino says. Many darker humors seem foreign to him or extremely well suppressed.
“You see him get frustrated or upset at things, but it’s never a lingering thing,” says Armie Hammer, whose wife took to calling Guadagnino’s vibe on set “vacation mode.” For Hammer, this became its own style of instruction. “Between setups, Luca would pull a chair into the sun, unbutton a couple of buttons on his shirt, lean his head back, and enjoy the place where he was,” he says. “Having that example, day in and day out, helped us all capture what it felt like in the eighties.” Lessons went past the Martini hour. “Normally, everyone is, like, ‘All right, everybody, fuck off—I want a few hours to myself.’ Luca is, like, ‘Come over to my house. We’re going to have dinner, talk about what we did today, and then watch a movie and discuss what it has to do with tomorrow.’ ” Hammer describes the approach as “holistic”: “You’re not just there for the process of filming. You’re there to live in Luca’s universe.”
“Suspiria,” though, tried Guadagnino’s easygoing flow. The film was shot mostly in winter, in an abandoned hotel on a mountain in Varese. Because there was no heating, and because the cast included dozens of women wearing dance attire, the crew had to fire up smoky gasoline heaters between takes. “The building was like its own horror movie,” a visitor to the set recalls. “The toilets looked as if they’d been used for some sort of satanic ritual.” Chaos and discomfort don’t sit well with Guadagnino, who, while meeting with an executive from Amazon Studios—which is co-producing the film—in his Rome hotel that morning, had ordered a bottle of water and a pot of tea and then cheerily sent both back: the water had been slightly cooler than room temperature (“Very bad for the bowels”), and the tea—well, somehow it had been mis-brewed.
Such precision imposes certain constraints. Guadagnino doesn’t think of himself as an Italian director, and he has never made a film in the Italian production system. “I don’t understand the imagery of Italian cinema,” he says. “I don’t understand what they’re doing and how I can fit into its mold.” The most American thing about his films, today, might be the masks they wear—a realism based not on classical beacons of meaning but on the veils of wishfulness and contradiction which obscure such meanings in the human wild. For weeks, he wanted to cut from “Call Me by Your Name” a scene in which Elio masturbates with a peach: the metaphor struck him as too unsublimated. He also doubted that the act was physically possible; eventually, both he and Chalamet satisfied themselves that it was.
“When I hear the words ‘aesthetics’ and ‘style,’ I get incredibly uncomfortable—I’m not striving for a beautiful image, an Instagram shot,” Guadagnino says. (He speaks English in bursts of industrious clatter, as if typing, with the faintest hint of a childhood lisp.) “You are pointing the camera toward a phenomenology of reality. And movies have the capacity to query what you see.”
When Guadagnino starts a movie, he works to build up the layers of a world with intense specificity—the feel of the buildings, the labels of the shirts—in order to help the characters find their pleasures and defenses among them. In this way, the old becomes new. “Suspiria” is Guadagnino’s second full-length remake; his first, “A Bigger Splash,” interpreted Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine” (1970), a movie that he did not like. But his remakes are less like remodelling old structures than like raising entirely different buildings on their foundations. “When you think of something being remade, you automatically make it contemporary—you industrialize it,” Dakota Johnson says. Guadagnino does something else. His version of “Suspiria” is set in 1977, the year that the original came out. He started recruiting for it, quite informally, while working on “A Bigger Splash.” (“He pulled me aside and whispered, ‘Soospeeriahhh!’ ” Johnson recalls. “I said, ‘What?’ ”) He never auditions actors; he just sits with them and talks.
By then, he and Swinton had been planning the movie for more than a decade. Her character, Madame Blanc, is one of several older women who play a mysterious leadership role at the Markos Dance Company. Totemic themes—power, the kind you find within and the kind you wield in relationships; physical pain, inflicted both directly and at a remove; and guilt, both personal and cultural—weave through the film. As the older women pass along their training, some of the younger dancers try to shake off their lineal power, and suffer for it. “Sie sind Hexen! ”—“They are witches!”—Moretz’s character murmurs before she disappears. Guadagnino describes his remake as “a movie about motherhood.”
In 2010, Guadagnino bought an apartment on the second floor of a derelict eighteenth-century palazzo in Crema, an hour east of Milan, and managed its renovation himself. Today, mid-century furniture and carpets cover its stone floors; peeling green shutters frame eggplant walls; built-in shelves bear books, CDs, and DVDs; a large screen hangs for the projection of films. He used the grounds in filming “Call Me by Your Name”—a decision that he now regrets.
“I don’t have to make the mistake again of shooting a film where I live,” he says. The town has lost its “virgin” aura and mystique for him, and, increasingly, he finds himself accosted by palazzo pilgrims: “Strangers come up to me and say, ‘I love your house!’ ”
Tilda Swinton in “Suspiria.”
Photograph by Alessio Bolzoni / Courtesy Amazon Studios
Leaving Crema poses complications, though, because, a year ago, Guadagnino moved his parents from Rome to an apartment a few blocks away—with some reluctance on their part. Guadagnino’s mother is Algerian, but she was brought up in Casablanca. She was nineteen when she met his father, an Italian teacher sent to Morocco at the behest of the Italian Foreign Ministry. They went to Scotland, where she could marry without parental consent. “My mother, in a way, performed a very courageous and bold act of transgression,” Guadagnino says. A few years later, his father got a teaching job in Ethiopia, so they moved.
Guadagnino has dreamlike memories of East Africa. His parents’ home had fruit trees and a vegetable garden. He learned to cook by picking produce and watching it being turned into meals. When he was four, he saw “Lawrence of Arabia,” on his mother’s lap. “I think something must have sparked in him then,” she says. “My husband and I knew nothing about cinema.” At nine, he saw “Psycho,” and was astonished by the man playing his own mother in drag. That was around the time Guadagnino started telling adults that he wanted to be a film director. His father thought he should be a teacher, but his mother got him a Super 8 camera. “That was my introduction: solitary, completely guerrilla, unaware of the medium—the opposite of those beautiful short films from Mr. Spielberg when he was young,” Guadagnino says.
In 1977, the Guadagninos moved to Palermo, in Sicily, to escape the Ethiopian civil war. “I wasn’t used to having all these buildings around me,” Guadagnino says. To this day, he feels restless in tight places, and his favorite season is winter, which hollows out the landscape. (Many of his films are set in snow.) At school, another student called him “il negro,” on account of his half-Algerian complexion, which bemused him—it was his first experience of feeling socially bound to an identity. He turned inward. “Luca was always reading a book,” his mother says.
In adolescence, he began to approach film systematically, watching everything he could, reading biographies of major directors, and studying the history of the craft. He would program VHS recordings from TV, but he rarely got the timings right, so many films in his collection had no ending, and some had no beginning, either.
Today, Guadagnino thinks of these years fondly—an impulse he has learned to examine. When he was thirty-eight, he went to see a famous Jungian in Rome, his first foray into therapy. “She said to me, ‘So, describe yourself. What is your relationship with your parents?’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s fantastic.’ ” Guadagnino talked and talked, and, when he rose to go, the therapist told him not to return. “She said to me, ‘Come back to me or anyone else, but later, because you are not yet honest enough.’ ” Guadagnino has not been to therapy since then, but he has made four acclaimed films.
When Guadagnino was ten, he was walking in a small town on the Adriatic coast which had emptied out for the summer holidays. The local movie house was closed, but some posters there caught his eye. “There was this ballerina with a severed head and the blood going from the neck to the vagina,” he recalls. “And there was writing, very ominous: ‘SUSPIRIA.’ ”
Four years later, he saw “Suspiria” on TV, alone in his room, with the door closed. “I was terrified but mesmerized,” he says. The film became his shorthand for a memory of early-adolescent autonomy: the thrilling feeling of first pulling away, burrowing down, and becoming himself. It was a landmark in his own coming of age.
In high school, Guadagnino learned to be “alone among people.” Sex entered his life suddenly, in July, 1984, when the actor Michele Placido appeared costumed as Superman on the cover of the magazine TV Sorrisi e Canzoni. “I couldn’t take my eyes from the crotch,” Guadagnino says. As his mind began to gauge his body’s new attentions, he became attuned to boys’ physicalities, the ways they emoted and moved—especially onscreen, where watching was acceptable. At fourteen, he saw John Carpenter’s sci-fi romance “Starman,” featuring Jeff Bridges as an alien who is frequently shirtless, and felt stirred. Guadagnino often thinks now of a line from “The Turning Point,” the autobiography of Klaus Mann: “There is only one face you love. It is always the same.” For Guadagnino, the face of Jeff Bridges in “Starman” was that face. Through the first half of Guadagnino’s career, he included a line of thanks to Bridges, whom he has never met, in the credits of every film he made.
Guadagnino arrived on the Italian mainland at twenty-one, trying to dodge the Latin requirements at the University of Palermo, where he’d been pursuing a degree in literature. The Sapienza University of Rome had no mandatory Latin exam and offered courses in cinema, so he transferred, moving often among shared apartments. His parents helped support him, not easily. (“Luca loved parties, loved to eat, loved talking on the phone,” his mother says. “One makes sacrifices.”) Despite speaking almost no English, he also enrolled in a multi-term course in American literature—Crane, Faulkner, Melville, Steinbeck. He found himself drawn to the American approach to narrative for reasons he could not then explain.
He wrote his thesis on the films of Jonathan Demme, whose work he had first encountered at sixteen, with “Something Wild.” In 1991, “The Silence of the Lambs” was released in Italy as an obscure genre flick, and he went to see it, alone in the theatre. “I was confused that this director who had made two essentially ‘light’ movies was moving into a horror-movie genre,” he says. But the film astounded him. In his thesis, Guadagnino described Demme as a quiet subversive, bringing countercultural values and political criticism onto the screen under the burnish of Hollywood fantasy. “The famous scene of Buffalo Bill looking for Clarice with night-vision glasses?” he says. “That was filmed in 1990, when we were watching America hitting Baghdad through night-vision images every day.” The lesson, for Guadagnino, was that cutting-edge filmmaking could live in the cineplex as easily as in the art house—that what a movie or a person seemed, at first, to be was just the entry gate.
One evening, as work on “Suspiria” wound down, Guadagnino left the editing room and went to a dinner at a friend’s triplex apartment on the Tiber. “This is a great Fascist-style building,” he said, pushing open a heavy front door and crossing a marble lobby. Inside the apartment, he climbed a twisting staircase lined with plastic medical-anatomy models: body after body, all stripped bare.
In light of Guadagnino’s successes outside Italy, he has become known among the upper strata within it. The hosts that evening were Anna Federici and her husband, Roberto D’Agostino, who goes by Dago. Federici is an heiress to a family of Italian builders. Dago founded the Italian news site Dagospia—a witty, idiosyncratic blog of politics, gossip, and soft porn which Politico recently described as a “must-read for the Italian élite.” Upstairs, Dago greeted Guadagnino wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, silver jewelry, and tattoos from his fingers to his ears; his chin sported a long Vandyke. Federici wore interesting glasses and a chestnut bob framed by white.
Guadagnino accepted a glass of rosé and wandered around. The balcony glowed with blinking neon palm trees, an enormous Christ figurine, and illuminated statues of Silvio Berlusconi and Chairman Mao. He flopped into a pink love seat of two scoop-like concave chairs made for Veuve Clicquot, reputedly from the casting of a woman’s breasts. They were separated by a champagne bucket filled with dildos.
“Yaaah, yaaaaaah.” Nelson Riddle’s “Lolita” song, from Kubrick’s film, blared from a video-art piece nearby. “Wo-ow, wo-ow, yaaah, yaaaaaah.”
Dago came over, still wearing his sunglasses and sucking on a small unlit cigar. He wanted to show Guadagnino “New Religion,” a room-size Damien Hirst piece about faith and pharmaceuticals which he owned. (“Dago is a Catholic,” Guadagnino explained.) He apologized, in passing, for the prudishness of the décor. Down on the lower floor that he’d converted into offices for the Dagospia staff, he could give freer rein to his eclectic tastes: a wall of Sacred Heart paintings; a set of black-and-red leather chairs shaped like penises; and, on a coffee table, a set of delicate fine-china plates bearing closeup photographs of fellatio and of a trans person being penetrated from behind.
“I’m looking for something that says country-but-only-an-hour-and-a-half-drive-from-the-city.”
Dinner was served. The guests filed downstairs, to the dining room, passing a nude frontal photograph of a slender man with a pendulous member. “Baryshnikov’s cock. Excuse me—Nureyev’s cock!” Guadagnino said. “Dago is very proud of it.” The table was decorated with a brass hammer and sickle. Dago shut the dining-room door, which was printed with a life-size posterior photo of a naked blond woman in gold stilettos. An enormous Anselm Kiefer canvas hung opposite Guadagnino.
Conversation turned to film, and to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.” That had been the age of Chanel and Dior, someone complained, and yet fashion was almost incidental to the movie. Guadagnino protested. “It is a film about the essence of love,” he said. “She poisons him, and he lets her poison him!”
Talk moved on to opera, but then somebody began attacking Bernardo Bertolucci, and Guadagnino rose again in defense, looking flushed and sheepish. Bertolucci made major American studio work without abandoning his own aesthetic—extraordinary! he said. (In 2013, he and Fasano made “Bertolucci on Bertolucci,” a documentary in tribute.) As servants began clearing the table for dessert, Dago presented Guadagnino with a gift in honor of his recent successes: a souvenir bottle of liqueur shaped like a penis and testicles. Guadagnino stood to make a little speech of gratitude.
Later, he said that what struck him most about the evening was the food. First course: penne, precisely al dente, with a sauce of slow-cooked onions and tomatoes and a topping of bread crumbs. Second course: roasted pork with leafy greens and applesauce. It was one of the simplest and most traditional meals in Italy—comfort food from the country, perfectly done. His eye had fixated on it, through the flashing neon, the sex paraphernalia, and the multimillion-dollar art works, as the telling detail of the evening. Perceptions of Guadagnino as a director of style and surface often miss this archeological sensitivity in his attention. His interest, for instance, in the way that shaded histories linger under opulence and ease. Or in the way that a rural young woman carries powers greater than she understands. A leitmotif in his films is exhumation. “He likes to bring up the bodies,” Swinton says.
Guadagnino spent most of his early twenties as what he calls a “wanderer,” trying to catch an interesting breeze. “I was one of these boys and girls who wanted to be part of a world in which the means of production were costly, the access was difficult, and doing a movie meant making it on film,” he says. After years of scattered work—as a gallery clerk, a cook, a film reviewer—he got funding for a 16-mm. short, “Qui” (“Here”), which he made, at twenty-five, with Fasano. The film centers on a man and a woman having sex in long take, and created a small scandal when it premièred, at the Taormina Film Fest. “It was very erotic—actually, pornographic,” Guadagnino notes. “I wanted to prove that I was not a coy director.”
When Guadagnino was in his early twenties, the actress Laura Betti hired him to cook for luminaries at her home. “Laura Betti was tough, tough, tough, tough,” he recalls. “She would not have survived these days of political correctness. She used to call me ‘little whore,’ in the female gender.” In summer, Betti rented lavish villas. “One day she came to the balcony when we were by the pool. She’d been having her afternoon nap. She said, ‘Kids, listen to me! I was dreaming that my pussy, Bernarda’—the feminine of Bernardo Bertolucci, who was very close to her—‘was talking to me, and telling us what to cook for dinner tonight!’ ” Guadagnino was shy and bookish, and her parties were an education. “Not many people talked to me, and that gave me great privilege: I was able to be in the back of the room listening, understanding, seeing the contradictions,” he says. This was when he learned that people were not beacons of fixed identity but accumulations of paradox and inconsistency—and that those layers made them interesting, even worthy of love.
Photographs from that era depict Guadagnino as a handsome, slender young man with a mop of curly dark hair and a confident gaze. One night, in 1994, he saw that Tilda Swinton, whom he wanted to work with, was in town for a celebration of the work of Derek Jarman at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, and he approached her from the crowd to say that he’d written to offer her a role in a short film. Why hadn’t she replied? The film had gone unmade.
“I was massively and instantly caught in the genius of his guilt trip,” Swinton says. She invited him to her hotel the next day to talk. “The bald fact is that we just liked each other from the first,” she recalls. In 1998, he moved to London for a year to make their first feature together, “The Protagonists.” The plot, about filmmakers shooting a documentary about a notorious murder, was openly postmodern; the seams and self-interrogating layers that Guadagnino would later interior-stitch into his films were worn on the outside.
Guadagnino returned to Rome and did not shoot another narrative feature for six years. In 2003, a producer offered him the adaptation of a succès de scandale, “One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed,” by a teen-age Melissa Panarello. The book was an ambiguously fictionalized diary of Panarello’s sexual coming of age, involving S. & M., orgies, and other extracurriculars. Guadagnino read slightly less than half of the text before deciding that he did not like it, but he agreed to do the adaptation. He had a plan to patch over schlocky bits by drawing on the psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto’s work on adolescence. He also had financing from Sony Pictures, which struck him as appealingly American. (His contact there, the late executive Gareth Wigan, gave him his first CD of the music of John Adams, which he has used in most films since.)
But the experience was an unhappy one. Sony, he says, set him up with a minder, who stood by the production monitor and pushed for extra footage. Guadagnino saw his heroine as a self-possessed, erotically confident young woman, yet the producers sought a moralistic ending in which she recognizes the error of her ways—“A girl who finds redemption,” he says. Guadagnino finished “Melissa P.” feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and misused. He vowed that his next movie, for better or for worse, would actually be his.
Last winter, during Guadagnino’s stopover in Manhattan for the New York Critics Circle Awards (Chalamet was receiving the Best Actor award; Guadagnino was to introduce him), he took a green tea in the lobby bar of the Mark Hotel and a conference call from two executives at StudioCanal. Guadagnino had planned to spend the summer in Sri Lanka, shooting “Rio,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jake Gyllenhaal. But production had been pushed up to May, and he was feeling harried.
“I don’t see a way to make the movie with eight weeks of prep—it’s impossible,” he said into the phone. “It takes time. The snake in the car!” “Rio” was a thriller.
Guadagnino listened for a moment, crossing one leg over the other. “I can give you clarity now,” he said at last. “I was doing a video once with an animatronic deer. It took six weeks to get the cost, and when we got the cost we had to cancel the scene.”
His tone was friendly but firm. He was trying to persuade the execs to let him start right away, before the budgeting. “You’re not ready to proceed in the way we should proceed,” he said. He waggled his eyebrows à la Groucho, and signed off the call.
In the space of a few minutes, the project had started to fall apart. (“Rio” is now slated to be directed by Edward Berger.) Guadagnino gazed wistfully out the window for a few seconds. “A terrible waste, because the actors are amazing,” he said. Then he shrugged. In his younger years, he would have hustled to accommodate a rush request—to “be the good-will guy”—but he now considered this folly. With experience, you learned what you needed in order to do your best work, and you learned to claim it.
Dakota Johnson and Guadagnino on the set of “Suspiria.”
Photograph by Sandro Kopp / Courtesy Amazon Studios
Armie Hammer, who was also going to the awards, arrived. He ordered a dry macchiato and a Gibson.
“I think my project is gone. My Jake movie is bye-bye,” Guadagnino said.
“Really?” Hammer said.
Guadagnino explained. But it was O.K., he said. There were other movies to be made. For instance, he wanted to film a sequel to “Call Me by Your Name.” He wanted Johnson to play the wife of Hammer’s character. “She has to be a New England kind of hoochie woman,” he said, riffing merrily. “You have, maybe, five children.”
“Oh, great,” Hammer said.
“The only problem is the title,” Guadagnino reflected. “It cannot be ‘Call Me by Your Name Two.’ ”
Like not a few directors, Guadagnino loathes the experience of shooting movies. The frisson of conception? That is heaven. Spending hours with actors or in an editing room? Bliss. But in between is the nightmare of getting the images onto film. If you are the director on set, people swarm you all day, asking for decisions. Things go wrong; there’s money hanging on each second. Then you call “Cut” and actors look at you, probably judging you, waiting to hear what comes next. Early on, Guadagnino was afraid to direct scenes where a lot of characters are doing things together in one room, because the eyes of all those actors awaiting blocking terrified him. Even in making “Melissa P.,” he had tried to storyboard the scenes in advance and keep them uncrowded. But the process had left him feeling, at nearly forty, chagrined about production, defensive and frail.
Around that time, Guadagnino watched a documentary about Ingmar Bergman making “Fanny and Alexander,” and found it a revelation. “You see that Bergman is constantly lost, and has no shame about that,” Guadagnino recalls. “He’s a living legend, and yet he needs to find his way—that tentativeness is how he got these astonishing sequences.” Guadagnino decided that he would allow himself to be vulnerable and open, like Bergman. He would have not just one crowded scene but many such scenes. He would dispense with storyboards and shot lists and would be free, even under scrutiny, to feel decisions out.
The movie that he made was “I Am Love.” Not since Michael Mann, perhaps, has a cinematic voice come into focus so startlingly in the middle of a director’s career. “I Am Love” follows three generations of a large, wealthy Milanese family as they variously succumb to structural and physical needs. The middle-aged mother (Swinton) falls in love with a young chef (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Her daughter (Alba Rohrwacher), an artist, has a secret lesbian affair; her son’s fiancée (Diane Fleri) conceals her pregnancy. Ingeniously, the film revelled in bourgeois beauty and comfort—genuinely, fully, without ideological disdain—as a groundwork for critique. It insisted that there is real sensual pleasure, even human tenderness, to be found in a beautiful dress or a perfect meal. (“He and I often talked of forging what I call a ‘sense-ationalist’ cinema, a cinema you can taste and smell and feel in a bath of environmental experience,” Swinton says.) Yet it also insisted on the sensual needs of the body, which will tear the world of those comforting pleasures apart.
Guadagnino’s cinematic style made this tension clear through extreme, contrasting points of view: restless closeups mixed with stately wide shots, refined fabrics leading to the thud of a body. In a notable sequence, the camera performs a huge S-turn, swirling around a plate of pastries, tracking Swinton down a staircase (staircases are the film’s transitional spaces) and framing a doorway where she meets her lover—the camera in sensual pursuit. Elsewhere, she is a speck in an exquisitely deep shot. The effect is to portray a consciousness reacting to itself: rushing forward on kinetics and desire, stepping back in prudence to order, preserve, and frame. One of Guadagnino’s favorite books is Judith Butler’s “Bodies That Matter,” and the title serves as a key to his work. His movies are haunted by betrayals of and by the body, and then by their effect on the elaborating and evasive efforts of the mind.
This brand of realism—Guadagnino’s use of the camera as a kind of nervous system, susceptible to human obsessions, vanities, and contradictions—illuminates, among other things, his mature approach to the erotic. “I’m a real voyeur, and all the directors I love are real voyeurs, too,” he says. “Think of Catherine Breillat or Ida Lupino—how strongly her gaze communicates that sense of possession.” Although there’s sex in “I Am Love,” the libidinous moment that viewers usually recall best occurs between Swinton’s character and a plate of prawns. The comparable scene in “Suspiria,” a film that’s at once sexless and lambently erogenous, comes when Madame Blanc brings Susie to a climax not of pleasure but of strength: she jumps higher than she has ever jumped before. “It’s a film about women trying to build up private sources of power because they aren’t allowed to have them publicly,” Kajganich, the screenwriter, says.
Guadagnino’s determination to alloy sex with self-discovery imbues his mature work. In “Call Me by Your Name,” the camera looks demurely out the window at a tree as the male lovers consummate their relationship, a move that earned Guadagnino accusations of homoerotic shyness. And yet that consummation suffuses much of the film—from the villa’s shutters, beating in the wind like a headboard, to the roughness and care with which Oliver handles his breakfast eggs. Swinton points to a transitive quality of identity in Guadagnino’s work, as the physical world acquires human affects and as characters swap roles, literally or figuratively assuming each other’s names. After his last film came out, Guadagnino was surprised that no one saw what he found obvious about Michael Stuhlbarg’s welcoming, quietly suffering character. “That father is a mother,” he explains.
When awards drift toward Guadagnino, as they have in recent years, he takes them in the spirit of a bachelor uncle accepting a four-year-old’s valentine—with delight at a touching gesture that will soon be forgotten by giver and receiver alike. On the afternoon before the Academy Awards, he slumped in a chair in a Beverly Wilshire suite and tapped open the browser on his iPhone. “Call Me by Your Name” had been nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture. He was wearing a white hotel bathrobe, half open over his bony chest. He scrolled through Italian news sites with the tight, preëmptive smile of somebody reading toward the punch line of a joke.
“You know that it’s Election Day in Italy,” he said. Several friends had gathered in his suite to see him off. His sister Monica, his date for the evening, was doing her makeup nearby. “Forget the Oscars,” he said, looking at his phone. “The real deal is here.”
The Five Star Movement—an anti-immigrant populist group—was pulling about a third of the votes, the largest share of any party. “Steve Bannon is in Italy right now,” Guadagnino said. “He says, ‘I feel the same atmosphere as before Trump’s election!’ ” He choked on a cackle. “That’s the real thing.”
When Guadagnino was a teen-ager, he was registered with the Communist Party and wrote for the newspaper of the Palermo Youth Communists. At one point, he scored an interview with a porn star who was a fixture on talk shows. “The editor said to me, in the typical Communist parochial way, ‘We are against pornography. We can’t publish it,’ ” Guadagnino recalls. He protested, and the paper seemed to accede, but, when the issue came out, he found that his interview had been prefaced by an editor’s note disavowing the text. Guadagnino resigned his Party membership that day, and never participated publicly in another movement. “I learned my lesson,” he says. There were better paths to politics. He set “A Bigger Splash” on Pantelleria—a windswept Italian island between Sicily and francophone North Africa and a funnel point for refugees. “Suspiria” unfolds against the events of the German autumn: a generational reckoning for a nation’s buried rooms. (The fictional Markos Dance Company is known for a thirty-year-old anguished, expurgatory dance titled “Volk.”) “Everything is political, whether you are aware or unaware,” Guadagnino says.
A Hollywood hairdresser finished his coif. Guadagnino turned to his sister. “Happy?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Basta, basta.”
Guadagnino checked a mirror. “Lovely—an institutional look,” he said tartly. The Hollywood hairdresser took up a makeup brush and started painting out the rings under his eyes. After a while, Guadagnino said, “I think ‘Get Out’ is going to win.” He liked the idea of a horror movie winning the big prize.
“Yeah,” Monica said.
“No,” the Hollywood hairdresser offered. “The Academy voters who are older did not like it.”
“You know as a fact?” Guadagnino asked.
“As a fact,” the Hollywood hairdresser said. “Know as a fact.”
Guadagnino stared out the window, toward the hills, still green with winter. “What did the older Academy members think of ‘Call Me by Your Name’?” he asked. “Were they appalled by it?”
“Oh, no,” the Hollywood hairdresser said. “They thought it was beautiful and kind of seventies.”
“All right,” Guadagnino said mildly. “Old-fashioned in a good sense.”
As Guadagnino’s cinematic language has grown more layered and oblique, his surfaces have grown more prized by the commercial mainstream. These days, to keep busy, he accepts a stream of for-hire projects. Swinton calls him “a natural yes-sayer,” always “setting things in motion, then repairing to a supine position of almost adolescent languor.” He has made films for Ferragamo, and shot fashion spreads. He has designed the interior for an Aesop shop, in Rome. In the past couple of years, he has set up a side business that he says he enjoys as much as making movies. This is the business of interior design.
One morning, Guadagnino was driven from Milan to Lenno, on the western shore of Lake Como, while reading the newspaper from his knees, which bobbed before him at eye level. He was designing a villa and a guesthouse on the lake which belonged to his long-standing friend Federico Marchetti, the C.E.O. of Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, the fashion e-commerce site. “Being very bombastic, I said, ‘O.K.!’ ” Guadagnino recalls. “I did not say, ‘I have never done this before and don’t know how to do it.’ ”
He worked on the house while making “Suspiria,” shooting from Monday to Friday and designing at the property on weekends, to relax. If movies were illusionistic—the province of the human mind—home construction was refreshingly material: a real place in which solid bodies lived.
In Lenno, Guadagnino entered a courtyard, traced with palm trees. The morning was crisp and windless, and its light was Como light—pale, harsh, and thinned by early fog. He had designed the main house around a wall-panelling motif made from pyramidal strips of wood; the idea came to him at the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm. As Guadagnino walked around, he became visibly excited, snatching drop cloths from mirrors and assessing progress. The carpet on the staircase was bespoke, he proclaimed, and it changed color in two directions. The basement pool was deep-green marble, decked with hinoki wood shipped from Japan. “This craftsmanship is fantastic—and life-affirming! ” he cried. Then he checked in on the rooms he’d designed for Marchetti’s daughter.
Having no children of his own, Guadagnino has fallen into a tutelary role toward the young people in his life. With his seventeen-year-old niece, he approaches the task in an Athenian spirit, drawing up reading lists to support intellectual and ethical growth. At the time of the visit to Lenno, he had just closed a deal on a villa, and surrounding houses, on fifteen acres in the Montferrat region of Piedmont, where he intends to run a residency program for young people seeking a foothold in film. At least, that was the plan. “I still have to figure out how to find these aspiring filmmakers,” he said, sounding suddenly alone.
Guadagnino recently travelled to New York, to shoot a “Suspiria”-inspired fashion spread for W. The photographs were to be of Dakota Johnson, and the setting was the Samuel Borchardt House, an opulent Gilded Age mansion on West Eighty-sixth Street. “A nightmare in the making,” Guadagnino murmured. On arriving at his New York hotel the previous afternoon, in the middle of a storm, he had drawn a bath and pulled his entire body underwater. When he came up, he was unable to hear, and it had taken the whole morning to right his ears.
Johnson appeared in an Armani dress, and he photographed her in a corner, offering praise and direction: “Can we make the sadness sharper?” Satisfied, he moved her to a three-sided banquette and snapped frames as flash circuits beeped.
“ ‘Sad girl’ still?” she asked.
“Mmm—serious,” Guadagnino said.
Two floors up, Johnson lay on the floor wearing a pink Fendi dress, and Guadagnino stood above her. He showed her how to pose across a chaise longue, and made small talk about her summer plans. “You do the August holidays in the Hamptons? Is it good?” he asked.
“I don’t know—do I look like a Hamptons girl?” Johnson said. “They’ll be, like, ‘Witch! Witch!’ Because I don’t have white pants.”
Guadagnino smiled cannily, and looked out the room’s French windows, over the swank West Side gardens beyond. “Open the legs a little bit?” he said. He snapped a few shots. “Maybe too much.” He turned to an assistant and asked for water. “Room-temperature bottle,” he advised.
The usual stream of Guadagnino’s friends came around, including the screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. Guadagnino calls LaGravenese “this guy that I totally and completely love!,” and LaGravenese calls Guadagnino “the first director who has allowed me to write fully emotional moments.” A producer of “Call Me by Your Name” had acquired the theatrical rights to “Blood on the Tracks,” the album by Bob Dylan, and had asked Guadagnino to make it into a movie. Sure, Guadagnino had said, but only if LaGravenese, whom he had never met, wrote it. (LaGravenese had previously written “The Fisher King,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” and, most exciting to Guadagnino, Demme’s adaptation of “Beloved.”) Somehow, the moon shot landed. LaGravenese cleared his schedule and, between April and July, hunkered down to produce a hundred-and-eighty-eight-page screenplay following characters through a multiyear story, set in the seventies, that he and Guadagnino had invented, drawing on the album’s central themes. “When they’re repressing, we dramatize the repression, and what that does to them,” LaGravenese says. “And we dramatize what happens when you let your passions take over too much.”
The sum of repression and expression can be coyness. During the final minutes of “Suspiria,” a piece of printed matter flits across the screen bearing the phrase “Ahnenpaß”—“Aryan Papers.” It is a Nabokovian gag from the director, and a talisman as well. In 1993, Warner Bros. approved a Stanley Kubrick movie, titled “The Aryan Papers,” based on Louis Begley’s novel “Wartime Lies.” Kubrick developed a treatment, but froze the project when “Schindler’s List” was released. Since that moment, twenty-five years ago, Guadagnino has desperately wanted to make “The Aryan Papers.” He has been lobbying the Kubrick estate, and has asked Kajganich to write the screenplay.
There’s something eerie in the fact that Guadagnino fell in love with the project when he was still a young man invested in radical cinema and pornographic frankness. The novel, drawn from Begley’s experiences, is narrated by a bourgeois Polish Jew who, in boyhood, received papers that allowed him to pose as an Aryan Catholic. The character carries this lie forward, weaving a story about the human stakes of concealment. It is almost as if Guadagnino had an early intimation of precisely the filmmaker he’d become—as if, while still preparing “Qui,” he saw himself emerging from work on “Suspiria,” a movie about hidden lineage and wartime guilt, in need of something new.
Upstairs at the mansion, Guadagnino put the camera down for a moment to show Johnson how to pose. She snatched it up and turned it on him, snapping frames and coming closer. “Don’t move,” she said. “Don’t move.”
Guadagnino glanced at the photo monitor. “Oh, my God,” he said in horror.
Johnson laughed. Guadagnino recoiled. “Erase that,” he pleaded. But Johnson kept giggling, clutching the camera in her hands. If she’d opened the shutter then, she would have caught him in a truly candid pose: eyes wide open, hands spread, covering his face in a mask. ♦
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