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New kid at school Maren (Taylor Russell), has been invited to a sleepover by a few popular girls, a rite of passage she correctly recognizes as fraught with potential for catastrophe. She doesn’t totally fit in, her off-trend wardrobe and zealously protective father putting a radius between her and her peers, and now she’s faced with a battery of tests to unspoken, intricate teen etiquette. Despite her unease, natural human instincts toward camaraderie take hold, and the night seems to be going along swimmingly — until a moment of intimacy in which Maren lies down on the carpet next to one of the other girls, face-to-face under a glass table strewn with beauty accouterments to cement the “Virgin Suicides” brand of pubescent ennui. The girl shows off her new nail polish, and Maren appears to kiss her finger in a gesture of tentative, confused desire, only to instead bite the flesh off her bone.
READ MORE: ‘Bones And All’ Review: Timothée Chalamet Shines In Luca Guadagnino’s Ravishing Cannibal Coming-Of-Ager [Venice]
Once she heads back out on the lam for the umpteenth time, she’ll cross paths with the lithe Lee (Timothée Chalamet) and fall headfirst into this heady mix of carnal and literal hungers that fuels “Bones and All,” the latest film from Luca Guadagnino. The Italian sensualist attained Stateside-superstar status for the queer heartstring-yanker “Call Me By Your Name” and spent a lot of his newfound industry cachet on a polarizing, demonically beige remake of “Suspiria,” but his new road-picture-cum-romance-cum-horrorshow takes most of its cues from the downbeat adolescent malaise of his recent small-screen outing “We Are Who We Are.” Though he claims it’s incidental, the 51-year-old Guadagnino has become a cinematic ambassador to Gen Z, his penchant for ripped denim and hippish haircuts matched by his belief in the soul-deep profundity of young people’s feelings. The premise of two lovelorn cannibals on the run makes metaphor of the restlessness and fear of being misunderstood endemic to anyone who’s ever self-identified as emo. Even with all the bloodletting, their shared yearning for something they can’t name can be found percolating in the cool kids of any small town.
On the eve of the New York Film Festival’s gala showing of “Bones and All,” Guadagnino met with The Playlist at a downtown hotel to discuss his take on Americana, the revelation of being seen, his admiration for a dying John Huston, and his love-hate relationship with the Italian moviegoing public.
Tell me about your initial impressions of America. When did you first come to visit the States?
I came here in 1999, at the end of September. I had presented my first feature film, “The Protagonists,” at the Venice Film Festival, and I must have been invited to screen it at NYU. I arrived here then, at the age of 28. I couldn’t understand or grasp the geography of the city, vis a vis its construction, and how the life of the city worked. I was put up downtown, near the Twin Towers, I believe. I was really lost and alone. I had a relationship with someone at the time, an American person who I’d just split from, and it was still fresh. I thought I might see this person, find a way to talk, to make that connection again. But they never picked up the phone. I didn’t have a cell phone then, so it was a weird time. I felt very alienated; my first time in America.
By the nature of your work, I’d assume that most of your time in America before now had been spent around the big cities. How did you start to envision the rural areas that “Bones and All” uses as setting? The film opens with a painting depicting a country scene instead of a literal landscape, which I take as a disclaimer that we’re getting your conception of this space rather than hard realism.
I, as is everybody in the world, am forged by the imagery of America. Hollywood has made a big statement about its country for as long as it’s existed, more than a hundred years now. For a long time, I had the physical experience of mainly the big cities — not anymore, because I’m old, so I’ve been everywhere — but at the same time, I’ve seen America through films. Past that, I tried to learn by being. I came here to make “Bones and All” on the principle that I could spend time in the country without bothering myself with production, a time for just existing. David Kajganich wrote this amazing script, and he’s from Ohio, so we spoke a lot about Ohio and this area, and I learned from him as well.
To your other point: I think every act of expression is a subjective interpretation, so that’s something I don’t think of actively but which still happens inevitably. Anyone making the movie will present to you their interpretation; they can’t help it. For me, I think of the landscape and its people. Who are they? We see America through the sketches of young students because we’re immersed in that society of high school. This is foreboding, but at the same time, the kids making these paintings are directing their imagination of their environment. And our girl, Maren, is an outcast from this circle.
Maren and Lee seem to complete one another, each giving the other something they need. A lot of your movies focus on the complications of building and maintaining relationships; do you see having compatible needs like this as the key to making that work?
Who knows! We are billions of people, each different from the others. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to answer that.
Fair! I’m also curious about the logistics of bringing one of America’s biggest movie stars into these small towns where you shot. Did this create great commotion?
No, we kept it low-key; we never had any problems like that. Timothée [Chalamet] was so invested in the movie that we weren’t even bothered by innuendos around the possibility that something could happen because of his fame. Nobody cared, for the most part. And we did everything, slept in motels and ate in diners. Some places were beautiful, some were heartbreaking in how you could see the decades of economic growth and how they were undone. You can see the deaths. It’s a powerful thing, makes you think about how economic factors affect the lives of individual people.
Though this is set in 1988, both the feelings these characters wrestle with and especially the style of their costuming hew closely to today’s young people in Gen Z.
Well, because Gen Z likes vintage.
Strong, varied sense of nostalgia, yeah. But I think there’s an emotional connection there, too, the feeling of being misunderstood and of needing someone to see you. I thought about your show “We Are Who We Are” and “Euphoria,” both of which are about kids of approximately similar ages with a similar hunger. In “Bones and All,” that hunger is literal.
I am interested in people in general, particularly the ways they express themselves. I don’t know if I can speak in general language about Gen Z, only that I am always interested in people who are not at the center of their place.
Not the high school quarterback or the prom queen.
Right. Though at that time, I may have wanted to be seen by the quarterback. And I never was. But then I learned that it was probably for the best that I wasn’t.
“Call Me By Your Name” and “A Bigger Splash” both share the idea that desire can be a revelatory thing, fully changing who you are. Does that concept stir passion in you?
My passion is stirred by transformation, how an experience can change your mind. The first moment of contact can be as tectonic as landing on the moon. Nothing’s more thrilling.
Violence is also a central part of your new film, shared by “Suspiria” and, to a lesser extent, “A Bigger Splash.” Do you see an intimacy in violence?
Violence can erupt at any time, anywhere, any place, for any reason. We’re rarely in control of that happening. You can’t know what will explode. It has to do with the way by which someone can be compelled to trust the space of the other. Violence is innate in our nature, it’s human. Maren is torn between the irresistible nature of the stimulus she feels and her connection with the person she might want to eat.
Working with an actress like Taylor, who’s relatively early in her career, do you find these a difference as opposed to an actor who comes in with their image already solidified for the public? Do you have an opportunity to mold that you wouldn’t otherwise have?
In my work, I tend to make sure the actors with me are happy and relaxed enough that they can let themselves go, no matter who they are. Once they’ve done this, there’s no difference.
Soon, you’re going to give a public run to your extended director’s cut of “A Bigger Splash.” With the longer run time, I’m curious about which sections or ideas you wanted to expand.
I will not talk about it until you can see it! But I’ll say that this version was the first version of the film and that we loved it, but we didn’t have the guts to release this one. I’m also very proud of the cut we released, so now we have two bigger splashes in my career. I love this.
It seems well-suited to being longer, because it’s all about these lazy summer afternoons spent by the pool, the kind of vibe you want to hang out in.
It’s a complete coincidence that that film, “Call Me By Your Name,” and my new film now all take place in these hazy summers.
It’s a sensual time.
This is true. And people have less clothes on top of them.
I hope you don’t mind my asking, but is your eye alright?
I have uveitis, which is an inflammation of the eye, for many years now. Sometimes it goes down, sometimes it comes back. I have drops.
Does that have any effect on shooting? Do you only look into the lens with one eye or the other?
No, it sees perfectly well. It doesn’t even burn, just a little redness. Other people notice it more than I do.
It’s interesting to see how a director’s physical state might have an effect on their perspective. You’ve been working for more than two decades now. Does your literal growth correspond to artistic growth?
It’s a dynamic job, yes. That’s why John Huston’s “The Dead,” which he directed from a wheelchair and hospital bed, is an extraordinary movie. To think of the master being on his deathbed, directing this James Joyce novella, it’s an inspiration. He could have only made that movie then, in that condition.
I’d be interested to hear your views about the Italian film industry; you found success there, but as of late, a lot of the—
Well, hold on. I was not a success in Italy. “I Am Love” was a disaster in Italian cinemas. The movie was recognized in the first place commercially by Americans. My films had never been successful in Europe until “Melissa P.,” and I didn’t recognize it as a movie to be proud of at the time. When “Call Me By Your Name” was received better, that’s because it was released first in America.
That’s relevant to where I was heading, this sea change between the masterpieces of the twentieth century and a dearth of that prestige in today’s Italian cinema, even with people like Pietro Marcello and Alice Rohrwacher working in the country. Is the issue that audience demand for art film isn’t there?
The state has been very supportive of cinema in the past few years. There’s a stronger rebate system in place, and the Ministry of Culture has given a lot of money to first-timers and documentary crews. As a producer, I’ve helped with this. But the industry can still be a bit narrow. There’s a resistance to the idea of cinema as a boundary-less place, and instead, it’s thought of more as a national thing. For me, that’s a little uncomfortable.
Last thing — how’s your new film “Challengers” coming along?
It’s almost done. We shot in Boston back in the spring. We’re going to have it all edited and mixed by the end of December. I work hard. I don’t like taking time off, you know?
“Bones And All” opens In select theaters in NY and LA on November 18, and everywhere on November 23 via MGM/United Artists Releasing.