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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Romney

​Director Luca Guadagnino: ​‘I was one of those isolated guys who ​found​ solace in horror’

Luca Guadagnino
‘Every one of my characters is an outcast’: Luca Guadagnino. Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

How do cannibals kiss? It must get messy, with a certain amount of lip-chewing involved. There’s a mass of bloody crimson – a maelstrom of near-abstract swirls, from which two faces emerge as you gaze – in a painting by American artist Elizabeth Peyton, which appeared this autumn in a huge reproduction on the facade of the 13th-century palazzo Ca’ de Mosta in Venice. It’s the first poster image for Bones and All, the latest film by Italian director Luca Guadagnino, which tells a story of two young cannibals in love.

Guadagnino recalls: “I said to Elizabeth, ‘Find the image in the movie that you want to comment on’ and she found the final kiss, which is a very ambiguous kiss. Is it a kiss of love or a kiss of annihilation? Is it a kiss of eating the other or a kiss of falling into the other? The kiss is always a very dangerous moment – particularly because of two years of Covid,” he says with a laugh.

Cannibalism seems an unlikely topic to discuss on a quiet, decorous hotel terrace on the Venice lagoon’s Giudecca island – especially with a director like Guadagnino. Many of his films have dealt with the downright exquisite – fashion, fine cuisine, operatic grand passion (his 2009 international breakthrough I Am Love), the burgeoning of gay romance amid bucolic splendour (Call Me By Your Name). Yet in Bones and All, teenage love is paired with the ravenous desire for living flesh.

Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in Bones and All
Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in Luca Guadagnino’s new film, Bones and All. Photograph: Yannis Drakoulidis/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

The cannibal is traditionally the poor cousin of horror cinema: vampires are seen as elegantly depraved aristocrats, zombies get respect as the oppressed proletariat, returning to wreak class vengeance. Flesh eaters, however, embody pure, ill-mannered appetite and are somewhat disreputable as screen ghouls, not least because of 70s-80s Euro-carnage films with titles such as Eaten Alive! and Mondo Cannibale. But then, Guadagnino points out – speaking in English, with enthused professorial intensity – there’s also Hannibal Lecter, nightmare cinema’s ultimate cultured epicure.

“Cannibalism is truly upsetting, because to resort to that ultimate taboo in order to survive – it’s something that we all fear. It resonates with me, this concept that you might find yourself in a situation where you cannot control your decency.”

The young cannibals of Bones and All are a disarmingly sympathetic pair: teenage Maren (Taylor Russell) and her beau, Lee (Timothée Chalamet), who travel across late-80s America, struggling to survive in a hostile world. Guadagnino’s first US-set film, it’s based on a young-adult novel by Camille DeAngelis; the script came to Guadagnino from his regular collaborator, screenwriter David Kajganich. Yet when Guadagnino had made the film, following a break-up with his male partner and the death of his father, friends who watched it said it was his most personal work. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘It’s all about mourning the death of your father, mourning the impossibility of your relationship with your partner – it’s all about your aim for an idyllic impossibility of romanticism.’”

Watch a trailer for Bones and All.

Guadagnino is very much an adult director: I Am Love cast Tilda Swinton as a modern Madame Bovary among Milan’s upper crust; their next film together, A Bigger Splash, was a brittle tragicomedy about the holiday pursuits of the bored and wealthy (Swinton has starred in four Guadagnino features, including his 1999 debut The Protagonists, and has said of their long-standing collaboration, “We’re like a pair of six-year-olds in a sandbox”).

But Guadagnino has also consistently depicted the agonies of youth. His early film Melissa P. (2005), a box-office hit in Italy, was an adaptation of a bestseller about teenage sexuality. He scored massively with younger viewers in Call Me By Your Name, which made an international heartthrob of Timothée Chalamet, and followed it with the underrated We Are Who We Are, an elegantly melancholic TV mini-series about American teenagers grappling with identity issues on a US military base in Italy.

Bones and All feels rather like that show’s dark double. Its heroine, Maren, is mesmerisingly played by young Canadian actor Taylor Russell, who won the Marcello Mastroianni award for best young actor when the film premiered at the Venice film festival. Bones promises to be her star-is-born moment just as Call Me… was for Chalamet. Her portrayal of a vulnerable but feral lost soul gives the film its tender heart, as Maren wanders through a world peopled by untrustworthy adults (including one played by a magisterially disturbing Mark Rylance).

Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name (2017).
Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name (2017). Photograph: Sony/Allstar

Guadagnino had admired Russell in 2019 drama Waves and knew as soon as they spoke via transatlantic Zoom that she was his Maren: “She was really unguarded, really unfiltered, she wasn’t trying to impress the director at one ocean’s distance – and she had these wide eyes… I was looking for what you would call ‘savage innocence’ and what is more savage and more innocent than a young animal in the woods? Like a young wolf, a young fox – even a young crocodile.”

* * *

Bones and All will strike a chord with everyone who remembers the compellingly gauche figure that a 20-year-old Chalamet cut in Call Me By Your Name. Reunited with Guadagnino five years on, Chalamet returns as a seasoned international celebrity, the star of Dune, of countless red carpets and bedroom walls. How has he changed and what did Guadagnino spot back then?

“I saw a vivid curiosity – a hunger for knowledge and experience. He knew he was such a great talent and for me that’s beautiful, not arrogant. He’s managed to become this global star who makes people shocked by his sheer presence – and be completely ironic about that. He’s kind of joyful and young in the way he deals with fame.”

On the other star of Call Me…, Guadagnino is more guarded. It has hardly gone unnoticed that there’s a certain irony to the theme of Bones and All, given the downfall of Armie Hammer, who has faced allegations of sexual assault and has been the subject of much speculation involving his fantasy cannibalistic predilections. Guadagnino firmly declines to offer an opinion on Hammer’s case: “First, it would be silly of me to comment on anything that I just don’t follow and second, I feel that time is the only judge.” But he is clear about the online environment where Hammer has been so avidly discussed. “Social media is a very powerful tool of corporate capital… [It’s] not something active, propulsive, forward-thinking that makes a public debate fertile – it’s actually something that is directed beyond the control of those who vomit their opinions online. They’re sort of puppeted.”

Bones and All, which won Guadagnino the Silver Lion for best director in Venice, is his second venture into horror material; he previously directed a very free reimagining of Dario Argento’s giallo classic Suspiria. In his youth, he says, “I was one of those guys who was isolated and who was healing himself with cinema, and finding a lot of solace in horror.” His heroes in the genre include John Carpenter, Wes Craven, 40s master Jacques Tourneur and George Romero – “to me one of the greatest film-makers that ever lived in America”.

“I always found in the best horror movies a very subversive, leftist tear-down-the-house quality that I always loved and it’s very dispiriting to see how contemporary horror went to the other side – it’s completely conservative, almost suffocatingly imposing a point of view that is sadistic.”

When it comes to filming gore, Guadagnino makes it sound a very painterly business. “When you shoot a movie, you deal with the physical place. You have a room – that’s the shape, the size, that’s the material, so what happens if blood is sprinkled everywhere? I’m more interested in that – how that becomes an image.” While the trailer-park naturalism of Bones and All draws on the photographs of William Eggleston, its bloodletting aesthetic was inspired by the famously confrontational Viennese Actionist artist Hermann Nitsch, known for his literally visceral Actionist artworks and performances (mixed media: carcasses, entrails, offal). “His work, uncompromising and relentless as it is, is a very beautiful example of the position of the artist, who has to go there and be daring, in a way that is really shattering the house. The pieces where he worked with paint are as beautiful as the ones where he worked with blood – which tells me that he’s a real artist.”

Modern art generally informs Guadagnino’s palette: Mark Rylance, who plays older cannibal Sully in Bones and All, tells me that the director was insistent that the character should wear a waistcoat in the style of the German artist Joseph Beuys. He’s precise on detail, Rylance says. In one scene where Sully cooks chickens, “he would show me how to press those Cornish hens down, stuff like that. The understanding [of the character] came through sensual activities, clothes, props, actions, preparing food.” But Guadagnino is also very open to suggestions, says Rylance: all the “decorative knick-knacks” embellishing the waistcoat were the actor’s idea, as was the country music Sully listens to.

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash
Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash (2015). Photograph: Jack English/Frenesy Film Company/Allstar

Despite the minute attention to visual detail and atmosphere, it’s a mistake to think of Guadagnino primarily as a stylist, says Bones and All screenwriter David Kajganich. “He’s a humanist who sees the world from an intellectual’s perspective, and that offers a depth and rigour of thinking about human emotion. He is certainly the fastest thinker in any conversation he’s in.”

Guadagnino has sometimes said that he doesn’t really see himself as an Italian film-maker. One reason is because of his background – an Algerian mother, who worked in telecoms, a Sicilian father, who taught Italian and history, and an early childhood spent in Ethiopia. In his DNA, Guadagnino says, is “the idea that the place where I am is not fully the place I am from. Am I Italian? Am I Algerian? Am I Ethiopian? Do I come from Sicily, because that’s where I was born, or do I come from Rome, where I spent 15 years, or do I come from Milan? I like the idea that I cannot give an answer.” Not surprisingly, he notes, “every one of my characters is an outcast”.

He is so much a creature of cinema that, as a gay man, he has said he only dates film-makers; for a decade, he was in a couple with director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, who also worked on some of Guadagnino’s projects. “Film-makers are very attractive to me. My best friends are all directors. I understand directors, I understand our weaknesses, our insecurities and our arrogances. I like that.”

When I Am Love brought Guadagnino international attention in 2009, the world was struck by its visionary scope and confidence. The fact that its creator sported a dense, wild beard – these days somewhat tamed – only furthered the impression that Italy had perhaps produced its own Stanley Kubrick. And Guadagnino admits he once had the sort of ambitions that that might suggest. “I had many megalomanic thoughts, of doing things like conquering the world of cinema, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how a sequence worked, for many years.”

In fact, Guadagnino has long hoped to make a film that Kubrick once planned, based on Louis Begley’s Holocaust novel Wartime Lies. This is just one of many projects that he has had on the boil in recent years, including a mooted remake of Scarface; a sequel of sorts to Call Me, still very much in the works; and a fiction film based on Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks, which Guadagnino one day hopes to make from a script by the esteemed Richard LaGravenese. His next project is already shot, however; entitled Challengers, it’s about a love triangle in the professional tennis world and stars Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist. Guadagnino shows me the planned poster image on his phone, then laughs – “Oh my God, I shouldn’t have done that!” – and puts the picture away. Professional discretion demands that I don’t describe it, but suffice to say that Challengers seems unlikely to strike anyone as significantly more demure than his other films.

* * *

Alongside all this, Guadagnino has managed to start a sideline in interiors and architecture. After a friend invited him to design a mansion for him, Guadagnino asked some architect acquaintances to collaborate and now runs a practice in Milan, Studio Luca Guadagnino. “The mindset of the architect and the mindset of film-makers couldn’t be more different. We work as film-makers under the pressure of the moment, architecture is… time time time, we have a lot of time.” See you next year in the Venice Architecture Biennale, then? “Oh my God, I would never be so arrogant. No no no. I don’t think I’m so good at it, but I like to do it.”

Giorgia Meloni
‘It’s a farce, a very scary one,’ Guadagnino says of Italy’s newly elected far right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Then there’s his long-standing passion for cooking, something his father passed on to him. “I love to do very complicated pastries – like savarin,” he says. Could pastry be a metaphor for his cinema – a complex, multilayered millefeuille? “I hope that as a chef and as a film-maker, I get to the centre of the taste without much complication. That’s what I want,” he smiles. “Clarity of taste.”

At one time a professional cook, he remembers an engagement in Rome, when he was hired by an affluent family celebrating their patriarch’s 90th birthday. “So I go there with my friends, and we cook in the kitchen, which overlooks the terrazza where they’re having this party. And the guy blows the candle and goes, ‘We must never forget to celebrate our Duce’ – and a hundred people go, ‘Duce!’” With an incredulous laugh, Guadagnino shoots his arm out in a Mussolini salute. “This was 1994 – and I don’t think much has changed!

“Italy has always been on the right,” he says ruefully. In Venice in September, he groans at the prospect of far-right candidate Giorgia Meloni becoming prime minister. “It’s like the night of the living dead – it’s crazy, really dispiriting and depressing.” A month later, speaking again in London after Meloni has won the vote, he laments that her victory “will allow the right to say, ‘We brought a woman to power, so you can’t claim that we are backward’. And this will allow very wild animal spirits to roam the nation. It’s a farce and a very scary one.” There are some things in the world a lot more frightening than movie cannibals.

Bones and All is in cinemas on 23 November

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