Luca Guadagnino insists that his utterly gorgeous and generally insipid new 37-minute film is not a commercial. According to the opening titles — which for unknown reasons are presented in the signature style of Woody Allen — “The Staggering Girl” is actually a medium-length art movie “based on Valentino Haute Couture.” Never mind that the short was produced by the monolithic fashion house, or that each of the many spectacular looks gets its own citation in the credits, or that even the most fleetingly glimpsed of the outfits on display have more depth than the human characters who wear them. Perhaps Guadagnino has never heard of the term “branded content.”
Premiering at the only festival on Earth that’s chic enough to support it, “The Staggering Girl” is inevitably both an overlong commercial and a medium-length art movie. That being said, if Guadagnino continues to insist that it’s one or the other, he may want to change his choice.
As a showcase for Valentino’s Fall/Winter 2018 collection, and an excuse to drape those ravishing dresses over a small coterie of the world’s most glamorous stars, the project is nothing short of a total success. As a narrative (if non-linear) work of cinema from a filmmaker whose recent hot streak includes the searing romance of “Call Me by Your Name” and the demented revisionism of “Suspiria,” this feels like a pornographically fashionable indulgence — an elegant smock of half-baked ideas that’s sewn together from all of the worst criticisms that have been mistakenly leveled at Guadagnino’s previous work. Even at less than 40 minutes it feels like an enormous waste of time.
Reuniting several of Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” collaborators, and stylistically picking up where that gruesome shard of genius left off, “The Staggering Girl” opens with four of the most hopeful words you’ll ever find at the start of a film: “Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto.” Alas, it’s all downhill from there. Julianne Moore, radiant and haunted in a wispy black pantsuit that falls around her body like a beautiful depression, stars as an Italian-American writer named Francesca who’s struggling to piece together her memoirs (perhaps because she insists on writing them in haute couture, as opposed to wearing sweatpants and ordering Seamless like the rest of us). It’s clear enough by the strain on her face that it isn’t going well, but cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom — shooting in lustrous 35mm — makes sure to hammer the point home by rendering Francesca’s Manhattan neighborhood with the deathly gray pallor of post-war Berlin.
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The echoes of “Suspiria” only grow louder when Francesca begins to hear strange whispers through the vents in her apartment; these errant thoughts about love and other nonsense belong to a nameless woman played by KiKi Layne, whose character pops off the screen in a stunning mustard peacoat as she lures Francesca deeper into her darkest memories (imagine if the figure in red from “Don’t Look Now” got the greatest glo-up of all time). But things don’t really begin to destabilize until Francesca wanders into Alba Rohrwacher at a fancy party, where the “Happy as Lazzaro” actress — covered head-to-toe in a princess-grade shade of pink — is interrupted by a strange man (Kyle MacLachlan) who takes Francesca by the waist and shows our heroine a painting that seems to trigger a rift in the time-space continuum.
Cut to: Rome’s Palatine Hill, where Francesca revisits her childhood home in order to ask her artist mother (Marthe Keller) to move out of their sprawling family estate and into an old age facility of some kind. MacLachlan is already there when she arrives, the “Twin Peaks” star now playing a fussy caretaker whose primary function is to contextualize the dull flashbacks that derail Michael Mitnick’s paper-thin script (Mia Goth appears as the younger version of Francesca’s mother).
At one point he refers to life as “the journey that we’re on from the literal to the abstract,” gesturing at the general trajectory of this film’s rickety efforts to bridge the gap between memory and identity, mother and daughter, art and commerce. “Once the world was defined,” he says. “Now it’s randomness, and nobody seems to mind.” By the time that MacLachlan surfaces as a third character — whose sharp mustache and lothario swagger are the closest “The Staggering Girl” gets to a sense of humor — it seems as if Guadagnino is having his cake and eating it too, the eminently sensual filmmaker taking full advantage of this chance to liberate himself from the shackles of a coherent story.
And yet, where the power of Guadagnino’s previous work has depended on his ability to complicate the beauty of his aesthetic, in “The Staggering Girl” he merely goes out of his way to obscure it. We seldom get a clear look at the technicolor dream-cape that is meant to connect Francesca to her childhood, and the inane dialogue that needles through the flashbacks and stitches the whole piece together sounds as if it was written for a perfume commercial. Guadagnino’s visual approach violently clashes with the style he’s trying to flaunt with it; by the end, the clothing and the characters who wear it only exist to distract from one another.
Only in a climactic dance sequence does “The Staggering Girl” arrive at any kind of real fluidity (credit for that belongs to Sakamoto’s full-bodied synth jazz), as you realize that any one of Guadagnino’s previous films could have doubled as a commercial for one haute couture brand or another — in making fashion his main focus, modern cinema’s most gifted sartorialist loses his natural glamour. Guadagnino’s previous flirtation with branded content, a globetrotting short he made for The Luxury Collection, was a compelling film because it embraced its nature as a commercial. By insistently trying to deny its purpose, “The Staggering Girl” only winds up selling itself short.
“The Staggering Girl” premiered at the 2019 Directors’ Fortnight.