The marriage between Luca Guadagnino and haute couture almost seems overdue, and a dream for admirers of the director’s I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name, and the recent Suspiria. Guadagnino is a stylish filmmaker, and his most recent work, a short film titled The Staggering Girl, which debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a maximalist work in that respect.
The film boasts a wardrobe supplied by Valentino (the fashion house helped produce the short, and was made in collaboration with its creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli), and every other element of The Staggering Girl is similarly beautiful. The music is by the legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the cast features Julianne Moore, KiKi Layne, Kyle MacLachlan, Martha Keller, and Mia Goth. Every piece of the puzzle is perfectly tailored to Guadagnino’s sense for aesthetic.
Francesca (Moore) is a writer, and daughter to a famous painter (Keller, and Goth in flashbacks). Though she has sequestered herself to write, she finds herself distracted by whispers carried through the walls and vents in her apartment, which detail a young woman’s love affair. The story belongs to a mysterious figure (Layne), who always manages to slip away from Francesca, the bright pops of color she wears disappearing around corners and through doors.
There’s not much more of a plot to speak of; most of The Staggering Girl is devoted to winding in and out of Francesca’s memories, in which Moore often subs in for her child self. It’s an effective device — a striking scene sees Goth and Moore under the covers, with Goth giving Moore advice as to how to approach the boy she has a crush on — but also a disarming one given how shapeless the rest of the narrative is.
The 35-minute film isn’t unlike the gowns it’s showcasing; the big cape that Francesca is obsessed with looks beautiful in the glimpses we get of it, but we never get to see it whole, and the gowns the women wear are gorgeous swaths of color that, more often than not, engulf the figure wearing them. Guadagnino’s ability to capture beauty similarly swallows up playwright Michael Mitnick’s script, leaving a surplus of imagery that struggles without a story to support it.
Only MacLachlan, playing what Guadagnino referred to in a talk after the film as the “eternal male,” or the essence of man — a play on the concept of the “eternal feminine” — holds any water. MacLachlan plays every male character in the story, from a mysterious voice on the phone, presumably Francesca’s husband, to her mother’s caretaker, to a mysterious man at a party, on and on.
In his work for director David Lynch — Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Dune — MacLachlan’s beauty has almost been weaponized, his handsomeness offsetting the increasingly strange and harrowing circumstances he found himself in. In The Staggering Girl, Guadagnino raises that feeling to an almost cosmic level, using MacLachlan, who seems more attuned to otherworldliness than ever, to embody all of masculinity in the same way that the Valentino gowns are used as a shorthand for femininity and a sort of eternal youth. That’s not to say that Moore and company aren’t arresting screen presences, but their characters are so tied up in their clothing that they don’t get as much room to breathe, or to simply exist.
It’s hard, in the end, not to see The Staggering Girl as a glorified ad, even though Guadagnino himself insists that’s not the case. In a talkback after the film, Guadagnino went on a brief tangent about the business of making movies, noting that so much of the process is about the money (and even citing Tim Burton’s Dumbo as a trenchant look at the way the industry works).
There’s an irony there, given that The Staggering Girl, though called a labor of love by Guadagnino and Moore, is something of a money ouroboros. Without Valentino’s support, would the film have been made? And isn’t it true that, in return, the showcasing of the gowns will feed money back into the fashion house? There’s a cost to the luxury Guadagnino splashes across screen.