Luca Guadagnino knows pleasure. The 52-year-old Italian director of A Bigger Splash, Suspiria, and Bones and All is frequently appraised in terms of the intensely sensual nature of his films. This can take the most vivid and unexpected forms. His international breakout I Am Love, the first of his self-described ‘Desire’ trilogy, that released in 2010, features a rapturous scene where Tilda Swinton’s aristocratic matriarch gorges on a plate of prawns and is frozen in delight. Seven years later, in Call Me by Your Name, Timothée Chalamet’s Elio — amidst his sexual awakening over a lazy summer in Italy in 1983 — seizes on a plucked peach.
“For me the idea of the self comes with the idea of the physical senses,” Guadagnino said during a session atthe ongoing Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. I met him afterward at a softly-lit upstairs lounge, decorated with James Bond posters, including one of Daniel Craig who stars in Guadagnino’s forthcoming feature Queer. An adaptation of William S. Burrough’s unfinished second novel of the same name — published only in 1985 — it follows a wandering American expat in Mexico City and his infatuation with a younger man. Guadagnino says it is ‘probably’ his most honest adaptation yet, in a spiritual if not literal sense (the screenplay is by Justin Kuritzkes, also the writer of Guadagnino’s upcoming Challengers starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist).
“For me, when approaching any book adaptation or remake, it’s about understanding what the story carries within itself that goes beyond the form of the original work,” explains the director. “So that you can tell that story from a completely different perspective. Whether it’s fresh or not, I cannot tell. But it’s different.”
Guadagnino was feted with the Excellence In Cinema Award at MAMI along with Indian director Mani Ratnam. It was his first trip here. I ask if Indian films ever played a part in his cinematic upbringing (James Ivory, one half of Merchant Ivory Productions and director of India-set English language films like The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, had adapted the screenplay of Call Me...) “I watch many great films but my education in Indian cinema is almost classic,” he Guadagnino says. “I know the great masterpieces and I love some of the contemporary films. But in terms of influence, if it’s there, it’s likely unconscious.” He singles out Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) as a favourite. “It’s one of the great portraits of female solitude and emotions. It’s beautiful.”
Of the leading directors working today, Guadagnino has perhaps the most effortlessly multicultural filmography. His characters speak multiple tongues and are often outsiders or outcasts. International stars like Swinton, Chalamet, Dakota Johnson, and Chloë Sevigny are frequent collaborators, and there are faces you get used to: Michael Stuhlbarg, so kindly and erudite as the father in Call Me..., turns up as a screwy cannibal in Bones and All (2022). His recent works — including the HBO drama series We Are Who We Are — have featured teen protagonists negotiating adolescence and identity. His stories and themes push back against heteronormative ways of thinking, and I ask Guadagnino if that could be the source of their universalism, the constant tussle between tradition and freedom.
“I don’t think it’s about shredding down the heteronormativity, because, by the way, what is that? It’s more about trying to make sure that the individual voice is preserved in its own uniqueness and purity more than trying to have an agenda.” He is not certain why the young resonate so deeply with his work. “I am still pinching myself when I see an audience (young or old) coming to see a movie of mine. I’m still the person who while making The Protagonists (his debut film, from 1999) did not expect anybody to show up. So, for me, it’s a miracle of life that people want to see my films.”
During his masterclass, Guadagnino aired apprehensions about a future when cinema — or the theatrical experience —becomes as rarefied as the opera. “That was a little joke, and I hope it’s not the case,” he tells us later. He is hopeful for theatrical projection in an age of personalised streaming and virtual reality. “Thousands of people went to see Oppenheimer in theatres.... It’s a drama about people discussing physics. Yet, it made close to a billion dollars. There is a need in people to experience stories on a big screen.”
Challengers, about a steamy ménage à trois set in the world of Grand Slam tennis, has been delayed until April 2024 due to the Hollywood strikes. Having previously nurtured only a mild interest in the sport, Guadagnino says he had to educate himself “on the way a tennis match works, to understand where the stasis lies and where the hecticness lies.” He has multiple projects in development, including an adaptation of Louis Begley’s holocaust novel Wartime Lies. He was also meant to helm a reboot of Scarface based on a script by Joel and Ethan Coen. “I am not working on Scarface anymore,” Guadagnino updates plainly.