THE STAGGERING GIRL: Living In A Material World

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which seems perfectly fitting for a 37-minute commercial showcasing haute couture inspired by Valentino’s 2018 Fall/Winter collection. Or could it be a story about a woman’s search for personal catharsis that just happens to feature some elaborate costume design? Either way, the objective of Luca Guadagnino’s experimental short is up for debate, which won’t necessarily be a problem for long-time admirers of the Italian auteur’s signature style or share the same inherent love for high fashion.

Premiering in the ‘Directors Fortnight’ category at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – if the film were going to succeed anywhere in the world, this prestigious event where money, art and fashion collide would be the place, and considering the undeniably attractive body of work produced by Guadagnino, it’s only natural that his passion-for-fashion project has just enough visual splendour to distract us from its questionable purpose as it does the frequent tendency to fall apart at the seams before our very eyes.

Call Me By Your Gown

Julianne Moore plays Francesca Moretti, a Manhattan-based writer in the process of completing her memoir who seems to be facing a temporary spell of writer’s block. After hearing a chain of poetic whispers come from a mysterious neighbour (Kiki Layne), the cryptic words echoing from the apartment air-vent inspire Francesca to return to her childhood home in Italy where she attempts to convince her partially-blind mother, Sofia (Marthe Keller) to vacate her property.

Living as a veteran artist with her caretaker (Kyle MacLachlan), Sofia has absolutely no intention of relocating, instead, she chooses to spend the rest of her days basking amongst the luscious green hues of her overgrown garden and continuing to paint inside the walls of her cosy Roman villa. Somewhat distracted by the surroundings from her past, Francesca’s persuasive ideas are sidetracked when buried memories suddenly begin to resurface, ultimately unearthing a sense-of-self that she never knew was lost.

The Staggering Girl: Living In A Material World
source: MUBI

While it’s common knowledge that a large number of successful short films are those that tend to rely on concept-driven ideas over character-heavy narratives, The Staggering Girl is the kind of hybrid that blends those two conventions together but often struggles to find a balance. No doubt, there are some interesting narrative devices at play here – the sort that could make or break one’s overall experience. Perhaps the riskiest of all being the choice to cast MacLachlan in multiple roles to portray Guadagnino’s idea of the ‘eternal male’, which, unlike Tilda Swinton’s drastic transformations in 2018’s Suspiria, the physical distinctions are much too subtle to separate each of his characters from one another.

Yet, thanks to the talents of Moore at the centre of a cast ranging from cult-icons like MacLachlan and the magnetic innocence of Mia Goth (playing the teenage version of Sofia), there’s never a shadow of a doubt that the quality of performances will struggle to salvage the series of beautifully-captured moments devoid of emotion, and even if there were, it’s more than likely that Guadagnino’s spellbinding direction already has its grip on you.

Beauty is Only Skin Deep

It would be unfair to say that this is the first time the artistic integrity of a film had been sacrificed for a little product placement, but if Guadagnino’s previous films are of any consolation, the filmmaker has already proven he has a rare talent for using the art of sensuality as his own form of cinematic language, which makes it easier to be more forgiving on this occasion. If anything, it’s in the fleeting ambiguity of Michael Mitnick’s screenplay where the film struggles to connect the most, often using vaguely-poetic dialogue within a non-linear structure to conjure-up vivid experiences from Francesca’s psyche; the transitions between the past and the present only becoming murkier as we try to distinguish which of those moments are being lived and which are being dreamt.

The Staggering Girl: Living In A Material World
source: MUBI

Flimsy writing aside, reuniting with trusted cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and getting composer Ryuichi Sakamoto to jump on board is precisely where Guadagnino’s vision begins to take shape, as we watch the three unique artists orchestrate the puppet strings of Francesca’s reality, they construct a moody mosaic of fragmented imagery from past romances and treasured moments with her mother that reveal the inner workings of her character. And minus the blood but with no less colour, it builds to a conclusion echoing similar imagery to those found in the ritualistic climax of Suspiria, where through the dreamlike gaze of Mukdeeprom’s camera, all the significant women from Francesca’s life engage in a coven-like dance – each in their own colour-coded designer dress to lighten up their corner of the screen. It’s a rapturous moment no doubt; one that proves sometimes narrative uncertainty can acceptable if the images overshadowing its logic are appealing enough to the naked eye.

It’s All A Matter of Taste

It comes as no surprise that this artistic collaboration with Valentino’s creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli, was raising eyebrows even before its initial release; following the heartbreaking melancholia of Call Me By Your Name, and more recently, the crowd-diving audaciousness of Suspiria, Guadagnino had already set the bar pretty damn high before the rumour got out that his next project would be with one of the world’s top fashion empires, let alone, would also star some of Hollywood’s finest faces to model the collection of dazzling designs.

The Staggering Girl: Living In A Material World
source: MUBI

For something that’s heavily anchored by the confection of garments it so proudly parades throughout (which often breathe more life into the script than the characters who wear them), slowly but surely the question arises if whether or not Guadagnino’s project was ever intended to be anything more than the fabricated objects that inspired it. Yet, while The Staggering Girl takes a journey that’s likely to leave viewers feeling lost along the way, those willing to surrender to its abstract delivery will be treated to a highly-texturized smorgasbord of fashion and forgotten memories, one that succeeds almost entirely through the mesmerising power of its beauty alone.

Have you seen The Staggering Girl? If so, how did the experience make you feel? Was it too showy? Or did the blurred lines between fashion and filmmaking work for you? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Staggering Girl was released in the USA and UK on the 15th of February, 2020. For other release dates, click here.

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