With her iconic, androgynous beauty and warm intelligence, Tilda Swinton is the lynchpin of director Luca Guardagnino’s two most famous films: the sumptuous Milan-set melodrama I am Love (2009) and the stylish and original erotic thriller A Bigger Splash (releasing in Australia 24 March). Both films seem in thrall to Swinton’s unique talents, and the actress will feature again in Guadagnino’s upcoming Suspiria remake. Yet the Italian director hates the term ‘muse’ – in reference to Swinton or anyone else.
“The concept of muse is alien to me,” Guadagnino says in Italian-accented English, speaking to SBS Movies on the Melbourne leg of the Bigger Splash publicity tour. “To speak of a muse implies there is a couple in which one person is the objectified passive element – there to help the creative, active, often male part of the duo to create. A muse is very passive. Who wants a muse? I don’t want a muse. Do you want a muse?”
Collaboration deals with the concept of understanding the other, whereas ‘muse’ comes with the concept of denying the existence of the other.
Far more productive, in Guadagnino’s opinion, is the concept of collaboration, and for the past 21-odd years, he’s had a close and fruitful friendship with the actress, who starred as a fictionalised version of herself in his first feature, The Protagonists (1999), was a producer and co-creator on I am Love and most recently, was an active participant in crafting her character, Marianne, a Bowie-like rock singer who has lost her voice, in A Bigger Splash. “Collaboration deals with the concept of understanding the other,” says Guadagnino, “whereas ‘muse’ comes with the concept of denying the existence of the other. We can talk about muses in history and muses in fashion for instance, and it’s tragic.”
There’s nothing passive or tragic about Swinton – in any of her roles, come to think of it – and certainly not in A Bigger Splash. Written by David Kajganich and inspired by Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine (starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider), this version of the story about four people coming apart on a luxury holiday puts Swinton centre stage, making her a world famous rock star in hiding.
Holidaying on the beautiful but barren-looking island of Pantelleria (halfway between Sicily and Tunisia), Marianne Lane is recovering from a throat operation that may prevent her from performing again. She’s there with her documentary filmmaker boyfriend (a smoldering Matthias Schoenaerts). Wordlessly, they lie in the sun, swim in the pool, smear mud into each other’s bodies and make passionate, lazy love. It’s a kind of swooning idyll (reminiscent of the birds and bees garden scenes in I am Love). Then, unannounced and uninvited, Marianne’s ex-lover and former record producer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his nymphet of a daughter (Dakota Johnson) arrive for a visit. The once peaceful villa is now crowded with unresolved sexual tension, loud music and off-putting nudity. In a career-defining performance, Fiennes portrays Harry as a manic and charismatic, a force of nature, intent on winning Marianne back into the wild life they once led. There’s food, music, drugs and dancing (Fiennes dancing, open-shirted, to the Rolling Stones is worth the price admission on its own). Until things turn tragic in the final act, it’s all enormous fun.
Was A Bigger Splash a fun film to make? Guadagnino looks weary at the very memory. “I always suffer in the making of movies,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t like making movies in general. It’s tiring. So I don’t think I would use the word ‘fun’. Having said that it was kind of riveting for me to experience one thing – the spontaneous and intoxicating sense of group that this great cast of people put together, as if they really were people who knew each other since forever. It was fantastic. And that comes with a great sense of generosity and their wonderful capacity of acting."
While the wider world only really discovered Guadagnino when I am Love premiered to acclaim at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, the Palermo-born 45-year-old has been making movies ever since he was an obsessive child with a Super-8 camera. He studied history and cinema at Rome’s University La Sapienza, where he wrote a thesis on the films of Jonathan Demme, whom he calls “a great humanist, but also very tough,” and also cites Bertolucci, Scorcese and Rossellini as influences. To date, Guadagnino has written and directed four feature films (Melissa P., an erotic coming of age tale is his only feature without Swinton) as well as 11 documentaries, a number of short films and an opera.
It’s impossible to ignore Tilda Swinton’s clothes in Guadagnino’s films. Her severely elegant costumes in I am Love were designed by Raf Simmons, while Dior provides strikingly angular modern resort-wear in A Bigger Splash. This is just one detail of many that suggest Guardagnino is a filmmaker interested in style, in beauty, in creating visual interest in every detail captured on screen in the last two films by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. And yet, when asked how important beauty is in his life and his work, the director is disdainful. “I think beauty is a very overrated concept,” he says. “In particular what is overrated is the idea that beauty comes objectively. From this perspective I’m not interested in it at all. And I’m definitely not interested in style. I’m interested in form, in the shape of things. And in commitment to the degree of never letting go the quest for the meaning of things. That can come off as beauty and style, but that’s not where I start from.”
Perhaps it’s this rigorous intellectualism that makes Guadagnino grumpy about doing media interviews, which are by nature repetitive and often banal. He admits this is his least favourite part of the movie-making process. “You get tired of your own voice,” he says wearily, “and the interviewing process can kill the immediacy between your ideas and your expression of your ideas. Ideally, in my imagination I would be like a dictator with the press, like North Korea where Dear Leader releases a statement and that is the only one for all the press. And that’s all there is. That’s my fantasy. Stanley Kubrick was great in that way because he really pulled himself out and made the movie speak for itself.”
For the first time I’m making a dark film – not dark because it’s a horror movie, but dark because it goes into the dark. And I’m really looking forward to that.
Guadagnino brightens visibly when told that Twitter was alight that morning with excitement about his upcoming remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Italian horror movie, Suspiria. “Excitement? Really? They weren’t upset about Suspiria being remade? I’m asking you because I don’t do Twitter and I’m surprised because I thought people would hate the idea. If they’re excited, that’s cool. That’s reassuring.”
The idea of a master stylist making his first horror movie is certainly intriguing. Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton will take the lead roles and the film will be set in 1977 (the year of the original’s release). According to Guadagnino, this remake will include more of a focus on motherhood. He has said he’d like to use the intense music of John Adams, as he did in I am Love.
But why Suspiria? “It’s a long time project that I’ve been nurturing inside myself since I was a kid,” he says. “I saw the movie when I was 14 and it made an impression on me. It was a watershed experience. It’s really like a primary scene for me – like that kid who gets into the room and sees the parents fucking – that kind of experience! I really nurtured the idea of making a version myself which was a strange idea. I still have books full of sketches at my mother’s house with a lot sketches and posters for MY Suspiria – like ‘Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino’ – a lot of this kind of stuff from 30 years ago! And then ten years ago we found the rights of the film and bought the rights and now I’m doing it. There was something about the concept – Dario Argento’s film was so free in its attitude towards the formal. And it was so excessive and extreme, with its assault on your nerves, and the music. And this girl with this face – Jessica Harper, divine. “
Does Guadagnino feel trepidation about remaking something that’s so special not only to fans, but to own personal mythology? “No,” he says emphatically. “I feel like for the first time in my life in shooting this specific movie I will have a good time! Because it’s going to be about dance, and I love dance, and I’m going to be enjoying watching those performers. And it will also be a movie without sun, for the first time. All my movies they have this very bright crystal clear sunny face. And for the first time I’m making a dark film – not dark because it’s a horror movie, but dark because it goes into the dark. And I’m really looking forward to that.”
Watch 'A Bigger Splash'
Thursday 7 May, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies
France, Italy, 2015
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts
What's it about?
Rock legend Marianne Lane (Swinton) is recuperating on the volcanic island of Pantelleria with her partner Paul (Schoenaerts) when iconoclast record producer and old flame Harry (Fiennes) unexpectedly arrives with his daughter Penelope (Johnson). He interrupts this holiday, bringing with him an A-bomb blast of nostalgia from which there can be no rescue. From Luca Guadagnino, director of Call Me By Your Name and I Am Love.