Why filmmaker Luca Guadagnino makes the most fashionable films around

Created in collaboration with Valentino's Pierpaolo Piccioli, 'The Staggering Girl’ seals Guadagnino's status as the fashionista director

Director Luca Guadagnino, from left, actresses Marthe Keller, Julianne Moore and creative director of the Maison Valentino Pierpaolo Piccioli pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'The Staggering Girl' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 17, 2019. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)
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Not since Alfred Hitchcock has a filmmaker channelled such an impeccable sense of aesthetics as a means of telling stories on the big screen. And in his latest film, a venture with fashion brand Valentino, produced by the maison's creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, Luca Guadagnino turns that concept up a notch. The Staggering Girl premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, in the Directors' Fortnight section, and stars Americans Julianne Moore and Kyle MacLachlan, along with Swiss actress Marthe Keller. It is everything we crave in a movie – intriguing storyline, glamorous characters and spellbinding images – packed into a minimalist 37-minute package. I walk away from the screening yearning for an all-new wardrobe and a trip to Rome.

The Staggering Girl. Courtesy Frenesy Film Company
A scene from The Staggering Girl. Courtesy Frenesy Film Company

I meet Guadagnino, Piccioli and their leading ladies at the JW Marriott hotel in Cannes, during a mini press conference. The event is being held inside a nightclub, which in the daylight looks anticlimactically kitsch, complete with large potted plants and a baroque-inspired carpet stamped with an oversized fern pattern. Yet, the cast and filmmakers still manage to look perfectly elegant within that setting, the men in essential black, Keller wearing a black suit and a T-shirt featuring the famed "VLTN" letters, and Moore in a short, silver, sequinned Valentino number.  

“I’m so interested in the fact that we feel compelled to decorate our bodies and our surroundings,” the actress admits. “We don’t have to… but we have this compulsion. I mean, I feel like wearing a short, sequinned Valentino dress at four o’clock in the afternoon, and so I’m going to!”

Fellow actress Keller chimes in with her own interesting take on fashion. "My mother always said: 'We are not rich enough to buy cheap stuff.' It stayed with me, and if I open my closet, I have things from 40 years ago, still lovely because of the way they are cut and their quality."

My mother always said: 'We are not rich enough to buy cheap stuff.' It stayed with me, and if I open my closet, I have things from 40 years ago

The Staggering Girl is a story told across continents – in New York City and Rome – about a complicated mother-daughter relationship that also travels across time. The film stars only one male actor, MacLachlan, who is surrounded by all these exceptional women. "It is very unusual that you get to have a story with only one man, one guy playing all the parts," Moore acknowledges.

Guadagnino is an interesting blend of cultures. Born in Palermo, Sicily, his mother is Algerian and his father Italian. He spent his childhood in Ethiopia, studied film history and literature at La Sapienza University in Rome and now lives in an ancient palazzo outside Milan. He speaks various languages, but always regretted not learning Arabic. Piccioli says of the talented director: "I'm a big admirer of Luca and his power, because for me, he possesses a kind of beauty that already has a story."

One only needs to watch the film that first put him on the cinematic map, I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton, to realise that Guadagnino has a special relationship with beauty. The austere grey-toned architecture that is typical of Milan and its surroundings, the clothing worn by the film's bourgeois heroine, designed by Raf Simons for Jil Sander, and the men's chiselled Italian good looks, all conspire to tell a compelling tale of missed passions and an unfulfilled life.

In the films that followed, features like A Bigger Splash (where Guadagnino also called on Simons, then at Dior, to outfit his favourite leading lady Swinton), Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria, fashion also plays a starring role. It is a delicate balance between style and substance – and no one does it quite as well as Luca Guadagnino.

Famously, Suspiria costume designer Giulia Piersanti had to recreate a mixture of 1970s-inspired patchwork, prints and outfits straight out of the West German period magazine Sibylle – think "a socialist version of Vogue" – for the 2018 retelling of Dario Argento's supernatural vintage horror flick. The result was visually stunning, a sort of Rosemary's Baby meets the films of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, all dyed in maroon Rajneesh cult-inspired hues. There were even dresses made of hair extensions.

But Guadagnino's own love affair with fashion has less to do with clothes and more to do with those who create them, he explains. "We have to discriminate between fashion as an industry and the creative people who make fashion and inspire it – like Pierpaolo and many others who represent, for me, the power of creativity, the power of the idea of the person." For the Italian filmmaker, fashion has more to do with "the profundity of the character, than with the surface".

This profound connection with the people behind the way we dress is the reason that in 2012, the filmmaker founded his company, Frenesy Film, which focuses specifically on collaborations with fashion brands. Among his best works are short films for Giorgio Armani, Sergio Rossi, Cartier and Salvatore Ferragamo – Guadagnino has directed a documentary about the iconic shoemaker to the stars that will be out later this year.

The spark for The Staggering Girl came from Piccioli himself, Guadagnino confesses. "It all started with Pierpaolo and his staggering work. I have been an admirer of his for so long and have been kindly invited to see some shows. And every time I've been seeing the shows, including the haute couture one, I could tell there was something so powerful and resonant that was transcending the mere beauty of the dresses," the filmmaker says

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 04:  A model walks the runway during the Valentino Haute Couture Fall Winter 2018/2019  show as part of Paris Fashion Week on July 4, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Valentino haute couture autumn/winter 2018/2019. Courtesy Getty

The project came together when Piccioli invited the director to watch the Valentino haute couture show in Paris last July. Guadagnino took with him "a brilliant filmmaker, Michael Mitnick, who is a writer, and we sat through the show together. At the end of it, we were mind-blown and started to have so many ideas and thoughts. We really felt we [had]experienced a great novel in the shape of a great couture collection – and the same night, Pierpaolo, Michael and I said: 'Yes, let's try to translate this narrative into another narrative, and everything came together.'"

Piccioli's own inspiration for the autumn/winter 2018/2019 haute couture Valentino show came from cinema. "I was working on this collection about the idea of a stream of consciousness; of how deep you can go to understand a character and I was thinking of Medea, [Italian film director, poet and writer] Pier Paolo Pasolini and Greek myths altogether," he explains.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 04:  A model walks the runway during the Valentino Haute Couture Fall Winter 2018/2019  show as part of Paris Fashion Week on July 4, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
Valentino haute couture autumn/winter 2018/2019. Courtesy Getty

About making The Staggering Girl, Piccioli admits that: "I didn't want at all to have a movie about fashion – that would have been a documentary maybe, but it's not interesting for me." So what is interesting to the lithe, soft-spoken Rome native? "For me, what's important, even in fashion, is the power of dreams and emotions; that's something that really delivers your personality, not how many hours you can use to make a dress, or how many beads."

Piccioli was in NYC on May 21 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for a talk about the narrative power of fashion – so I ask him how clothes can tell a story. "Doing a collection, doing a show is in a way like making a movie," he begins. "When you see a runway show, I hope you'll get the emotions I have and the values I believe in and my idea of beauty.

"For me, fashion works when it delivers more than just clothes; when it delivers beauty and through beauty you can deliver emotions and dreams; and you can allow people to talk about something else."

I could tell there was something so powerful and resonant that was transcending the mere beauty of the dresses

One concept that comes up time and time again with Piccioli is gracefulness. "Grace is a word that is perhaps forgotten today, because we talk about surface, the moments, but grace is something that comes from inside."

Guadagnino elaborates on his own use of fashion within the entire narrative process: "I think when you do a movie, and particularly when you build a character with your partners, it is crucial and essential to start from the way these people look and then how they behave."