A master of the senses, these Luca Guadagnino movies tell stories that give us goosebumps and transport us to beautiful places.
If there is one director who knows how to appeal to the senses, it’s Luca Guadagnino. Beyond his mastery of audiovisual storytelling, the director can somehow evoke touch, taste, and smell in a single scene. He uses this gift to craft an atmosphere that mimics and illustrates the emotions and thoughts of his characters.
Guadagnino was not formally trained, but his attention to detail — color, sound, texture, shot-placement, blocking — is incredibly studied. Since his beginnings at the fringes of arthouse cinema, he has directed many documentaries alongside his feature film work. His most recent of those is Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams, which follows the career and life of famous Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo. Fittingly, Guadagnino is most well-known for his “Trilogy of Desire,” three of his most recent films: I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and the most well-known, Call Me By Your Name, which have earned critical praise and established him as a singular talent.
Find Me, the hyped sequel to Call Me By Your Name, was purportedly sidelined soon after a bizarre controversy surrounding Armie Hammer surfaced. Guadagnino moved on to other projects, one of which was, by absurd coincidence, a cannibal love story. This upcoming feature, titled Bones and All, will again star Timothée Chalamet, alongside Taylor Russell, and is set to be released later this year. It will be the director’s first movie set in the United States, following a girl on a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend, searching for her estranged father.
A lot more is soon to come from the Italian director, who is taking his talents into new territory. He has a project called Challengers in the pipeline, a drama set in the professional tennis world that will star Zendaya and Josh O’Connor. Further down the line, he will direct an Apple Studios biopic of Audrey Hepburn, and he’s even been hired to direct a remake of Scarface, of all things. With so many new projects coming, and with all due respect to his prolific catalog of captivating short films and documentaries (and the TV series We Are Who We Are), let’s take a look at the feature-length, fictional Luca Guadagnino movies, ranked.
Guadagnino’s 1999 crime thriller was his first full-length feature and put him on the radar of arthouse connoisseurs. It was also the first collaboration between Tilda Swinton and the director, good friends who would go on to work together frequently, including his following project, the 2002 documentary short The Love Factory which featured an interview with the actress.
The Protagonists follows a fictional Italian documentary film crew that arrives in London to tackle the true story of the senseless murder of chef Mohamed El-Sayed by two teenage boys. Starring Swinton as a member of the crew and an actress in the dramatic reenactments for the documentary, this genre-bending art film was the earliest evidence that Tilda Swinton and Guadagnino shared artistic sensibilities. In a way, the film contains a lot of the ingredients that characterize the director’s career now. Guadagnino would go on to touch on his fascinations with passion, tragedy and coming-of-age narratives. While the plot and themes are somewhat jumbled here, Guadagnino proves that he had something to say, and demonstrated his sharp eye and solid instincts as a filmmaker.
There are some seeds of Guadagnino’s later “Trilogy of Desire” in the early feature, Melissa P. Based on a controversial Italian bestseller (think Fifty Shades, but the girl is 14), the plot follows a girl in the midst of a sexual awakening. Dealing with a difficult family life at home, Melissa is searching for love in all the wrong places and engages in extreme sexual behavior to get it. She tells the story in a series of increasingly explicit diary entries, read in voiceover. There’s style to Guadagnino’s second feature, and actress Maria Valverde perfectly portrays the young girl’s desires and confusions about love and lust.
Some of Guadagnino’s shots, particularly those depicting touch and physical closeness, hint at the strengths he would most keenly demonstrate in Call Me By Your Name. Unfortunately, Melissa P. didn’t quite deliver its emotional themes about teenage sex and love with much clarity. There were also some troubling features of the substance of the film that felt misguided to some. Most of these can be connected to the source material itself, as Guadagnino thankfully kept the graphic sexual exploits off-screen. What lingers is a beautifully shot, if narratively confused film.
An outlier in Guadagnino’s filmography so far, Suspiria easily could have used the vibrant, sumptuous style that characterizes his other work. Many expected him to build on the near-psychedelic color palette of Dario Argento’s original 1977 Suspiria, a classic of the horror genre. Instead, his version was a bleak vision of Cold War-era Berlin, drenched in rain, snow (and ultimately, gore.) It’s set at a stark modern dance academy in 1970s Berlin run by a cold choreographer named Madame Blanc (Swinton). The atmosphere is scary enough before it’s revealed that this dance academy is actually a coven, and Madame Blanc is the witch fighting for its control. When an American dancer named Susie (Dakota Johnson) arrives, she quickly becomes embroiled in the dangers of the academy.
The main connection to Guadagnino’s other work, besides Tilda Swinton in multiple, unnerving roles, is Suspiria’s skill playing with the viewer’s senses. This time, Guadagnino uses his gifts as a filmmaker to overwhelm the viewer with feelings of horror, fear, and disgust. He inventively uses camera angles, light, Thom Yorke’s score, and the architecture to create a sense of dread. One particularly grueling scene doesn’t have a single drop of blood, but remains one of the most disturbing, visceral pieces of body horror in the entire genre.
I Am Love
Guadagnino’s breakout film, and the first in his “Desire Trilogy,” I Am Love demonstrates the director’s ample talents in an explosion of color and emotion. Emma (Tilda Swinton) is a Russian woman who has married a wealthy Italian business magnate and built a life in the country, albeit a repressed one. Everything changes when she embarks on an affair with her son’s friend, a chef named Antonio. He cooks her an exquisite dish, and it’s love at first bite, Guadagnino’s stylized lighting showing the world fade around her as she comes into bright focus. The scene epitomizes Guadagnino’s technical talent and the film’s argument about the power of lust: when it comes barreling into our lives, there is little we can do but surrender.
Unfortunately for Emma, this means accepting tragic consequences as well. Yet again, Guadagnino finds a way to touch on nearly every one of our five senses, with a special emphasis on taste here. The shots of mouth-watering dishes will live on as some of the most detailed and gorgeous depictions of food in a film.
A Bigger Splash
This drama from Guadagnino is shot in his trademark style with lurid color and sensuous cinematography. Darkness lies beneath the sunny surface of a couple’s vacation on a remote Italian island off the African coast. Loosely drawing from the 1969 film La Piscine by Jacques Deray, A Bigger Splash follows Marianne Lane, a retired Bowie-esque rock star (Tilda Swinton) vacationing with her filmmaker boyfriend (Mathias Schoenaerts) after having vocal surgery. Mostly unable to speak, Marianne focuses on her recovery until a boisterous old friend (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson) show up, and suddenly no one can keep their hands off each other.
Things go south quickly. A dark wave rises behind the self-involved romantic and sexual exploits of the characters, and when it finally breaks, it delivers tragedy — and some much-needed perspective. A very strong performance from Fiennes allows Guadagnino to deliver a tense, passionate statement about how other people, and life itself, inevitably trouble the waters of our relationships. You can only stay alone on an island for so long.
Call Me By Your Name
Desire has never felt as real as it does in Guadagnino’s most famous film: Call Me By Your Name. Based on a novel by André Aciman, the film follows a 17-year-old boy named Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet), the musically talented child of academics staying in Italy for the summer. It’s just as idyllic as it looks, sounds, and smells — the cigarettes on sun-baked streets, the late=night discos and the long afternoons. When a grad student of his father’s named Oliver arrives to stay with the family, Elio’s summer becomes one of obsessive, all-encompassing longing.
Each word, touch, and glance is magnified by Guadagnino and becomes a mystery to be deciphered for Elio. When their romance finally materializes, the summer is already nearing its end. This was the true breakout moment for everyone’s favorite soft boy turned Space Prince, but it also brought Guadagnino’s films into the American limelight. While a sequel has been ruled out, we can certainly expect more absorbing stories of passion from Guadagnino in the coming years, from a Scarface remake to cannibal love.