Luca Guadagnino’s Houses are as Sexy as His Actors
Luca Guadagnino makes films with awe-inspiring interiors, but they are more than mere visual escapism.
Photography by Peter Spears courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
A tycoon’s wife has a near-orgasm over a prawn. A rock star bathes in mud on a deserted Mediterranean beach. A 16th-century courtly romance inspires a 17-year-old to Make The First Move. These are scenes in the three most recent feature films of Luca Guadagnino, a director adored for his taste who suggests that taste is not the point. “There’s a strange assumption that I am the director of lounging rich people,” he said in one interview following the release of 2015’s A Bigger Splash . “I don’t think I am about that.”
Guadagnino was referencing the fact that he has made films about diverse topics—including documentaries about the Italian occupation of Ethiopia and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci—in addition to the three features in what he calls his Desire trilogy, all of which take place in Italy, and which made him a cult hero for, among other things, their sets. The first two entries were 2009’s I Am Love and 2015’s A Bigger Splash; the newest installment, Call Me By Your Name, which opened last week, doesn’t disappoint. There is indeed a lot of lounging, in picturesque Italian towns that do well by the regional tourism bureaus which helped fund the film. Its characters are people who are, if not rich, richly cultured: Elio is a brooding son of professors, who falls for Oliver, his parents’ doctoral student boarder. And it’s great! The swagger-y adult and charmingly awkward almost-adult pairing is one we’ve seen a million times, but not between two men. It blossoms at a perfect pace, over Italo disco dance parties and Attic sculptures (year: 1983 going on 27 BC).
Desire here is about about the senses, and the carefully rendered world helps us feel them. Most action takes place at a 17th-century villa in Lombardy, decorated by Violante Visconti di Modrone, a first-time set decorator who had an acting part in I am Love, and who sourced this film’s objects in part from her own family heirlooms. The backdrop is integral to main events. We first meet Oliver when he arrives to take over Elio’s room, ousting the teenager not just from his Talking Heads and Robert Mapplethorpe posters, but, as we glean from his irritation, stability. Tension builds in part via a shared bathroom, where glances drift among among turquoise tiles and terrazzo floors (and, as this blogger obsessively documents, a host of nostalgic bath products).
Michael-Diaz Griffith, associate director of the Winter Antiques Show and a fan of the Desire trilogy, points out that what’s consistent about the interiors across the films is eclecticism: “They reflect a very specific, very Italian layering and accretion of periods and tastes,” he said. In the house in Call Me by Your Name, 18th-century Japanese paintings sit alongside Lombardian cameos; I Am Love takes place in the Villa Necchi Campiglio, a Milanese modernist landmark to which neo-baroque details were later added. In that film, too, decor is metaphor. Tilda Swinton is a matron who has an affair with a chef; the restaurant’s walls where she first tastes his food are painted with pastoral trompe l’oeil murals; the lovers later fuck on a mountaintop abuzz with insect life. It’s the tonal opposite of the Villa Necchi, all austere marble and sharp corners, one of which turns out to be literally fatal.
Eclecticism tracks with the aesthetic zeitgeist, Diaz-Griffith says, alongside renewed appreciation for decorator Renzo Mongiardino and Alessandro Michele’s designs for Gucci. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that these movies regularly spark post-viewing desire for the objects in them. “Make like the characters in A Bigger Splash and rent one of the traditional Arab-style villas, or dammuso,” instructed a Harper’s Bazaar travel guide to Pantelleria. After I am Love came out, Jil Sander offered a re-edition of the cocktail dress worn by Swinton on its website. Next year, Indagare, the luxury travel agency, will host a design-themed trip to Milan that includes a tour of the Villa Necchi by Guadagnino.
Is this kind of object fetishism beside the point? Maybe not: in I Am Love, it has a higher purpose. Swinton’s reaction to “pea cream and zucchini flowers, prawns with ratatouille and sweet-and-sour sauce....” is love’s first spark. (The line goes on: we even learn the vineyard of their Riesling.) In Call Me By Your Name, the food orgasm gets literal, with a peach offering us the second instance of fruit-as-sex-toy in a film this year ( Girls Trip, you’re in good company!).
It’s a tight rope to walk, making movies which work as escapism and hoping people don’t get lost. Sometimes, though, getting lost is what’s great. Some of my favorite moments in Call Me by Your Name are the ones when the camera looms for no clear reason: on bucolic landscapes, spoons boiled eggs. At one point, Oliver and Elio stop for a glass of water at the beautifully crumbling house of a beautifully crumbling woman shucking beans. They drink and leave, while you wish you could stay. It’s a mood, and not much more, but it lingers.