on independent cinema
interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you start in cinema?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I started as a critic. Actually, I started as a cinephile.
I always looked at films, lots of them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is the first film you remember?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I remember my first impression of a screen, which had nothing to do with the actual film when I was five years old. It was the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, by David Lean — years after the film came out. I was in my mother’s lap, in a big theater in Ethiopia. I’ve always been very enthusiastic about cinema, someone who really lives in it. I always thought about and tried to understand all the threads that make film — cinema history,
the relationship to the viewer, etc. So I got a degree in the history of cinema, in Rome.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Rome was the Italian capital of cinema.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Once. It’s totally finished. I think the language of cinema has been greatly lost. I don’t want to sound grumpy or nostalgic,
as if it was better then. But the art of cinema has passed away from moving images and people talking and has been replaced by special effects.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you think that the language of cinema has been lost?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — The capacity of a film to interpret reality and create different visions of it for those watching — not simply showing people or emotions, but going further, creating a sort of social consciousness about an issue. That’s what we’re losing. I think it’s a sad moment, compared with what cinema was before. One in a hundred films will now interpret reality through the language of cinema. It’s like painting, which came from the avant-garde, then passed through the crises of the ’60s and ’70s only to return to the figure. Now, there seems to be a kind of nostalgia for cinema to be like the novel. But film was never like a novel. Cinema is made up of images put together with other images to create a related idea. What’s lacking is the interpretation of the void between the images. For example, when Jean-Luc Godard portrayed a couple in a crisis, you saw it through an idea Godard had about the crisis of cinema itself. He tells a simple story of a bourgeois couple, but at a higher level, via deeper meaning, he presents something critical about the form, which back then already engendered feelings about its death.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your documentary film Bertolucci on Bertolucci is a symphony of interviews with him. There’s a moment, from the ’80s I guess, when Bertolucci, speaking about Pasolini, says that the language of cinema is no longer the language of reality because the language of reality is television. What would be the language of reality today, if not cinema?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — It could be the Internet. But it’s a challenge for myself as a filmmaker: what is my subjective capacity to see reality with eyes wide open, with a mind ready to observe and think like an artist, which in cinema means to get away from the star system and the production of mass divertissement — entertainment.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you think about the digital revolution?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — The digital revolution is a great democratic achievement, but it’s fake. The problem is how to be thoughtful within the orgy of image production that increases all around us — which, to be honest, makes me want to stop producing images.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean it’s destructive to cinema?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Yes. And to reality — the reality of making images that are worth watching and thinking about. Not just anyone can create an image. I don’t want to be elitist. I think images, and those who make them, should be strongly invested in and reflect and interpret reality, and not simply reiterate the status quo.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know Bertolucci started out as Pasolini’s assistant, as I learned in your film. Nor did I realize he was so deeply influenced by him. Aren’t you a very late son of Pasolini?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Thank you. I speak for myself, but it’s important for me, whether I’m working with stars and fashion brands and making fashion films, or simply taking pictures for fun — I’m always aware of what I’m doing in the middle of all this, and I don’t stop being critical.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like to work in fashion, too.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Absolutely, but my process is always analytical. That has to do with my childhood. I remember being fascinated by things my mother and my Aunt Isabella had — for example, a beat-up old Hermès bag.
I was interested in the form and started to become conscious of such things, which is what drew me into the fashion world. But it all comes from fascination. And in fashion I met many inspiring people, such as Raf Simons, Francesco Russo — great artists who bring something beyond the imposition of capital to produce, produce, produce. It’s about form, inventing form, reinterpreting form.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But the fashion world produces nonstop moving images, short movies, videos, of which maybe not even 1% have any relevance.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I agree completely. It’s incredibly sad, but the same pertains to the clothes. What’s the form? What percent of mass-produced clothes makes sense as a silhouette that says anything about us, who we are, and where we are going? Maybe 1%, you are right.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Not a lot, but maybe enough!
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Going back to my roots, even when objects and materials come from the codified world of luxury images, I try to frame them in a perspective of reality. I don’t know if I succeed, but I don’t like drama in film. In making a film, the imperative becomes the study. Drama shouldn’t be the center of cinema, as it is for theater. In cinema, we must interpret psychological and exterior realities.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t your approach to cinema political?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Oh, yeah. Everything is political. Even the false idea that there are no more ideologies, which is extremely ideological, but also cruel because to call an end to ideology suggests that we live in a world with no hope besides well-being and accessibility, which is the purest triumph of ideology. I’m thinking about my next movie, A Bigger Splash, which is about four people trying to escape or go toward one another.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s about a community of lovers ?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — In a way. Of lovers and haters. What is the language of reality of this film? Is it about privilege? I think it’s about the neuroses of a world in which everything is post-ideological but at the same time hyper-ideological. How do you behave in a world where everything is supposed to be okay, where there is no possibility to confront your ideas with someone else’s? How can you create antagonism and different perspectives where there is none?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you choose to remake a cult French movie, La Piscine, from 1969, which reunited Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. Schneider had dramatically broken-up with Delon and married German director and actor Harry Meyen in Berlin. She had a child; she was out of cinema. Alain Delon asked the filmmaker to book her for this role. The original film is not so good, but you get the true emotions of two people, and it’s in this emotional experience that cinema creates another, possibly its own, dimension.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — That’s exactly it. Its reality isn’t in the drama, or in the constructed idea of love between two characters, but in the past experience of love that Alain Delon and Schneider brought to the screen. They were a famous couple who split up and got back together in front of the camera.That’s one of the reasons for its incredible success in France and Germany. And this is why I also love this film.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s impossible to recreate that situation!
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Absolutely. After I made lo sono L’Amore [I Am Love], I was approached by Olivier Courson and Ron Halpern, from StudioCanal, who were dreaming about reviving La Piscine. I was a bit skeptical because the original, by Jacques Deray, was made during a period when the greatest filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague were making amazing films, interpreting reality, and questioning the concept of cinema. Deray, who was also the director of Borsalino, among other films, was more into American film noir and French action films or spy films.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But, La Piscine is not a political movie!
LUCA GUADAGNINO — This film was about the typical problems of bourgeois betrayal. I grew up with Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague, but not the commercial films of the ’60s and ’70s. So why should I do a remake of a film that comes from a world that’s so far from me? Of course, behind the curtain of bourgeois betrayal — and murder — there remains universal desire. Which is what? How do you show such basic elements of the emotional subconscious as desire and jealousy? I tried to understand that and asked myself, What’s the desire to kill the father? Or to kill a figure that has been your guide? Not like in the ’60s, when they were trying to kill fathers as a trope of conservatism. The father of today does not censure his son, and gives sons and daughters the permission to do anything he would like to do himself. I wanted to talk about how people today cannot sustain the imperative of jouissance — enjoyment — but must restore a sense of order by killing the father of jouissance. I interpreted that story with four people in a clash of desire. And that’s what led me to a movie that is now completely different from Jacques Deray’s La Piscine. Of course, I borrowed my title from David Hockney, which is completely different.
OLIVIER ZAHM — From Hockney’s painting of a swimming pool and his film about himself, each called A Bigger Splash.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — For me, Hockney still represents the voice of the counterculture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the swimming pool is a symbol of unconscious desire, in painting, in movies.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I often put swimming pools in films. In Amore, there’s a swimming pool where a guy hits his head and dies. Here, I wonder if there isn’t something about myself in such an image: I can’t swim. I have a big fear. If you put me into water, I drown. I guess I prefer going toward fear than running away from it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A swimming pool is a strong symbol.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — In Hockney’s painting, there’s the tension of the surface and what is beneath the exploding splash in the pool, which is incredibly sexual. I remember the first time I saw it, as well as a second painting with a guy swimming underwater. I was maybe 14. That’s when I began to understand my own sexuality. In a way, I was upset by those paintings. I could hardly look at them because they’re so much about what is below the surface, at a deeper level of desire and sexuality. Hockney questioned this through the lens of his own homosexuality, which really hit me. So to shuffle the cards, I think Hockney’s great painting is also symbolic of the unconscious representation of homosexual desire — but using heterosexual couples. I tried to put a bit of Hockney’s perverted vision of a surface in a sort of non-straight undercurrent reference to him.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you optimistic about the evolution of cinema? From Paris, we have the feeling that Italian cinema in the ’70s was the most beautiful, from Pasolini to Fellini to Rossellini, even compared with the Nouvelle Vague, which was more a statement about cinema.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Not to be nationalistic, but I agree with you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Those films are richly influential. But it’s also true that Italy has lost its touch in cinema. How do you see the situation, as you’re one of the new names? I’m sure that there are others we may not know of, actually, because Italy’s quite, um…
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Provincial?
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve been international from the beginning. You use international actors; you travel; you show your films in New York…
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I don’t consider myself an Italian cinéaste, to be honest.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you an African one, as you grew up in Ethiopia?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Hopefully, an African one. I wish I could be considered an Algerian director. My mother is Algerian. I was born in Palermo in 1971, but I grew up in Ethiopia. I came to Italy when I was seven. In my mind, deep emotions and visual landscapes are from Ethiopia and not Palermo or any place in Italy. I arrived in Italy as an outsider, even as a kid, when I went to school and was darker than the average Italian. I was “discriminated” against, as you’d say in today’s world of political correctness.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They were prejudiced against you?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Yeah, yeah. People called me “the nigger,” so I always felt outside the center. That’s why I was so drawn to film. I was very alone.
I went to see films alone. I was developing my own sexuality, which in a way was also off-center, and that made me feel a bit outside, too, though not so much. I also strongly recognize and support the civil rights movement, but I’m not an insider of that, either.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you support the gay and lesbian movement?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — The Western civil rights movement, like the LGBT civil rights, the right to marry — all that stuff is very important to me, and it’s a scandal that it’s not allowed in Italy, for instance. But I’m not a militant. My entire career, if I can use such a word, has involved being completely independent, to the point that, in 2005, I decided to produce myself because I didn’t want to engage in conversations with the Italian cinema establishment, which might try to dictate my way of making films.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you raise money on your own?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I’m a believer that if you want something, as Truman Capote said, you’re going to get it. So I’m really doing it. Yes, I do it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This is your rebellious side.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — No, it’s my risky side. I like to take risks.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So would you define yourself as an independent filmmaker?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Completely. I work with international actors, film crews, and scenarios, including some from Italy; but I don’t really belong to commecial cinema, or to Italian cinema. Nevertheless, I come from Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Francesco Rosi, Bertolucci, and Bellocchio, and that incredible 25 years of cinema — ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s — created at the highest level, by filmmakers who were inspired by the most remote lands, especially Rossellini and Bertolucci. That incredible legacy has been transformed into the irrelevant cinema we make today. I’ve thought a lot about that and have a couple of ideas. First, the younger filmmakers of this generation, operating in the ’70s, were engaged in the post-’68 idea of overthrowing the old order, using the power of youth in its moment, which of course never lasts. They also thought what they were doing was eternal, so they did not feel the importance of transmitting knowledge. In a way, it was a generation of immensely great but narcissistic artists in the cinema world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Thinking they could incarnate their youth?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Forever, without thinking that knowledge has to be passed on, at least to continue the evolutionary process.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t Pasolini do that for Bertolucci, and educate him?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Pasolini did, but when he was killed, it was also killed. They killed the only one who wanted to transmit something to the younger generation in Italy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have an idea or a personal theory about the murder of Pasolini?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I think the guy who claimed to have killed him did it out of sexual depravity. I think it was a plot, perpetrated against him because he was at the center of Italian culture but very provocative to the system — Pasolini was not a marginal writer — and he was razed from the face of the earth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So there was no transmission from his generation?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — No transmission from the generation who should have transmitted Pasolini’s ideas. Everything shut down. But the second very important name for transmission was in the ’70s — Roger Corman, the great B-movie filmmaker. Corman directed and produced many films that empowered other young filmmakers.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Such as?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, to name a few. Knowledge needs to be transmitted; otherwise it dies without evolving. But then there is an industry problem.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Television?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Exactly. Berlusconi came to power in the ’90s, but his influence came when he started national television in the ’80s, which changed everything, empowering the language of television over cinema. Who are the important Italian directors today? They are from the MTV generation more than anything. I don’t know if you’ve seen Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty or Il Divo, his last film. Those films want to say they come from the Fellini legacy, but they exhibit only a superficial understanding of Fellini, seen through the lens of advertisements, commercials, publicity, and video clips. I don’t think a young audience today necessarily wants fast editing and a camera that does this and that. I think even a young audience wants to see images that tell them something about reality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — About their reality?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Yes. Absolutely.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you optimistic that cinema can still be a language of reality?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Well, the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes has made two fantastic films, Tabu and Arabian Nights, which just came out.
He spent a year trying to understand where his country stands, and made films that are topically and visually great. That alone is an amazing achievement. So I’m very optimistic. People everywhere think about images and about reality and should be able to make films that use the language of cinema in this unfortunately boring world in which “cinema de papa” still rules.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you consider your beautiful documentary about Bertolucci — made of a combination of extracts of interviews — a film?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So reality takes the form of a documentary film on another filmmaker.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Yes. I mean a documentary can do just that, so long as it’s not the documentary style now taught, which is a kind of reconstructed television documentary. Werner Herzog made some of the greatest films in the ’70s, but his documentaries, such as one about the death penalty, On Death Row, and the one about the grizzly bear man, Grizzly Man, or the one on the Iraq War, are amazing. We should endorse that kind of energy in younger filmmakers. I produced a film called Antonia by a 26-year-old filmmaker, which is about a wonderful Italian poet in the ’30s who killed herself at age 28 and has never been recognized.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because we’re in such a situation, with so many moving images that don’t mean anything, it’s time to be radical again. In your documentary, Bertolucci says that when he was 23 or 24, making a movie was like writing a poem. Now, 40 or 50 years later, can we still start from there?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Absolutely.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In that case, maybe the connection with the past is not entirely gone.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — That depends on where you are and on the capacity of an industry to recognize it. One of the great recent French films, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, from 2013, is a beautiful sort of mystery film, set near a lake where a community of gay men go for casual sex and a murder occurs. When a film like that appears at Cannes, has lots of César nominations, and sells worldwide, that’s a radical movie today.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the brillant young French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — I’m a bit suspicious of Xavier Dolan, for one reason:
he does too many films. I do not believe in hyperactivity. I like the idea of reflection. I think Mommy, for instance, is a typical post-Almodóvar female drama, shot in the clever, intelligent way of today, with an awareness of the iPhone generation. Is it a gimmick having to do with the tool? Or does the tool affect the way the images are put together? I was very upset when Mommy — what a title! — was awarded the Jury Prize in Cannes. It basically contradicted Godard’s lesson that such an orgy of images is the end of language and then was rewarded for being an orgy of images.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe because it’s a film that celebrates the orgy of images as a new language of cinema for the younger generation born with the Internet?
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Possibly. I guess that makes me a grumpy old man, and maybe Xavier Dolan is right.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Well, you can’t deny the freedom in Mommy, where the tool of his generation pushes moving images beyond cinema — with young people trying to find freedom and escape the family, the mother, as well as superficial love and fake relations. Maybe it’s a typical teenager movie. I use him just as an example of a filmmaker who doesn’t necessarily care about the history of cinema, but who makes a movie that mostly uses the new technology of images in order to tell a story.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Absolutely, but moving forward, would it represent something more than just being an outburst of desire in moving images?
I wonder if Xavier Dolan or anyone who does the same is really thinking about what it means to create an image in motion? But maybe I’m wrong. We’ll see!
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s perhaps a bit extreme to say that cinema was the language of the 20th century, and we have no artistic language for today.
LUCA GUADAGNINO — Possibly. But looking at cinema history is still extremely important today, in a period of confusion.
A Bigger Splash is an erotic thriller with a international cast, including Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, and Matthias Schoenaerts. It opens in 2015.
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