Luca Guadagnino, whose new film "Suspiria" is in limited release, makes films about escape from repression, the momentary liberations we experience when freed from the crushing norms of society and who we become when afforded that freedom.
That’s clearest in his recently concluded “Desire” trilogy, a trio of films comprised of the romantic drama “I Am Love,” the steamy dramedy “A Bigger Splash” and the coming-of-age masterpiece “Call Me by Your Name.”
Often, the liberation with which Guadagnino preoccupies himself comes from the freedoms of nature, the empty spaces not yet cultivated by society and places where no driving forces exist but the temptations of individual wills and desires. Nature, in his films, is omnipresent and freeing — a blank canvas upon which his characters paint their desires.
The transformative power of nature is at the core of "Call Me by Your Name," a sweepingly romantic coming-of-age drama about queer self-discovery, and the freedoms of it. Guadagnino represents the lush Italian countryside as a space devoid of social standards and expectations, where the film’s two young lovers are free to be themselves, and to find themselves.
Nature in the film also feels daring and powerfully sensuous. It’s both quiet and active, at once urging the characters to act on their desires, but passively, quietly and only through the solace it provides them.
That rapturous sensuality is Guadagnino’s secret weapon. It’s vital to his artistic prowess, ethereal in its ability to pull you into the world of his films and singular in its power. No other filmmaker can do what he does.
Perhaps most integral to his success as a director is his capacity to imbue each film with that same quiet, sensuous passion, but to make it feel new each time.
In “I Am Love,” the 2009 Italian melodrama that began his “Desire” trilogy, Tilda Swinton stars as a matriarch in a family of wealthy industrialists. She married into the family, but she’s hardly a part of it, subservient to its men and rejected by its women.
Guadagnino’s film beautifully and achingly chronicles her isolation, placing her in a rich tapestry of characters and dynamics that’s sensuous and sorrowful. It’s a testament to Guadagnino’s power as a filmmaker that the movie feels stirring and not hopelessly melodramatic, at once a sweepingly epic family drama of “Godfather” proportions and a poignant, tender romance.
It’s also brimming with creative delights. The character drama is often familiar, and rarely is it genuinely moving, but Guadagnino’s filmmaking feels innovative and stirring at every moment. His camera captures not just movements and interactions, but feelings and fleeting moments of passion. It’s delicate, really, what he achieves, and where his quest to move beyond passively showing us the actions of his characters takes the film.
“I Am Love” is visually tactile and staggeringly beautiful, and if Guadagnino solidified his aptitude for building atmosphere, emotion and sensation visually with it, then he perfected it with his next film, “A Bigger Splash.”
In “A Bigger Splash,” Guadagnino reunites with Tilda Swinton, who plays an aging rockstar on holiday with her husband in Sicily, for a film that’s all style and pretty much no substance.
It follows the chaos that ensues when an old flame of Swinton’s shows up with his daughter, played brilliantly by Dakota Johnson, but really it feels like an excuse to bring his aesthetic to the story of a bunch of sexually frustrated, conventionally attractive rich people.
It’s surprising, then, that “A Bigger Splash” makes waves like it does. It’s funny, more than a little bit sultry, and, for much of its runtime, a complete and utter joy.
Things fall apart as interpersonal tensions flair and the proceedings fall into nonsensical drama, but Guadagnino’s sense for capturing tactility and sensuality remain captivating. Every detail of the Sicilian coast feels vibrant and real, every sunbeam hot, and every drop of water salty and refreshing.
His “Suspiria,” a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic about an American ballerina’s run-in with a German witch coven, looks to forsake the rich environments and sensuous settings of his “Desire” trilogy, but it looks captivating all the same. If one thing is clear of Guadagnino’s creative repertoire, it’s that his films are always beautifully captivating.
If his past works have let us feel the summer sun — the sweet, sticky juice of ripe peaches and the spray of the sea — then let’s hope his grizzly new horror lets us feel the blood.