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Luca Guadagnino Is Love

Love songs can be so trite. Rom-coms can be so formulaic. Because we spend much of our lives thinking about love, it’s no surprise that artists are similarly obsessed with matters of the heart. Yet so many of their efforts are dreadful. Chalk it up to how subjective one’s feelings on romance can be. Some find its truest expression in a Celine Dion ballad. Others gravitate to a Glen Powell flick. The art that speaks to you about the complexity, beauty and anxiety of love is so personalized—it can’t be wrong, but others may not understand.

For almost 20 years now, Luca Guadagnino has been my go-to filmmaker for explaining what love feels like. Sex, desire, longing, heartbreak, adoration, commitment: The Italian director has covered all aspects, his movies both carnal and romantic, sometimes playful, sometimes melancholy. His latest, “Challengers,” may be his most freewheeling and mischievous—telling the story of three tennis players hopelessly intertwined in each others’ lives and beds—but it continues Guadagnino’s thoughtful exploration of how love (or the lack of it) dictates our very beings. 

He shied away from romance for his first film, 1999’s “The Protagonists,” a crime thriller starring Tilda Swinton, but he followed it up with an erotic thriller, “Melissa P.” Then came Guadagnino’s commercial and artistic breakthrough, “I Am Love,” in which Swinton played Emma, a mother and wife safely ensconced in a wealthy Italian family who discovers how emotionally embalmed she is once her daughter comes out as gay—and Emma meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a younger chef who stirs fiery feelings within her, first with his food and then with his spirit. 

A film about escaping repression, “I Am Love” was a supremely sensual drama, Guadagnino capturing the simmer of a summer love affair. When Emma and Antonio get together, you can practically smell the grass beneath them and the sun’s sizzle on their naked skin. More than any contemporary director, Guadagnino understands how our strongest memories are soaked with sensory fragments—not just smells, but sounds, tastes and touches. Myriad sex scenes are “erotic,” but few are as vibrantly sexy as the unadorned coupling that occurs in “I Am Love.” In comparison to the stuffy upper-crust, closed-off existence Emma has been trapped in, her sweaty, carefree fling with Antonio is about more than just sex—it’s an expression of freedom and defiance, an unashamed stripping away not just of clothes but of the expectations of a consumerist, risk-averse world. At the end of “I Am Love,” the lovebirds end up sleeping together in a cave, banished from the society that once protected them. To some eyes, that final image might look like a disquieting purgatory. For me, it was a happy, impossibly romantic ending.

Love doesn’t always work out, though. For his next film, Guadagnino dropped us into what could be classified as a romantic rhombus, focusing on four characters whose desires are causing them (and each other) all kinds of angst and raging hormones. Inspired by Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine,” “A Bigger Splash” starred Swinton as Marianne, a rock star recovering from vocal surgery, vacationing on a gorgeous Italian island with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). But plans change once they run into Marianne’s old flame, pompous music impresario Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his fetching daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Does Harry want Marianne back? Is Paul worried that Marianne wants to get back with Harry? And is Paul developing feelings for the flirty Penelope? Who’s going to end up with whom?

If “I Am Love” was a more stately look at desire, “A Bigger Splash” was juicy and shameless, Fiennes’ uncharacteristically gregarious and swaggering performance a hint of all four characters’ outsized lust. There’s rarely a moment when you don’t think someone is about to jump someone else’s bones—even Harry and Penelope seem inappropriately lovey-dovey with one another—and the stunning locales only add to the film’s anything-goes illicit charge. Eventually, “A Bigger Splash” succumbs to thriller elements that aren’t quite as well-handled, but before then, the film is a salute to being an absolute horndog. You shouldn’t cheat on your partner, but when everybody is as attractive as these four are, well, it’s pretty hard not to let wild thoughts escape.

The unbridled carnal urges of “A Bigger Splash” were replaced by a deeper, more abiding adoration in his adaptation of André Aciman Call Me by Your Name. Which is not to suggest that the Oscar-winning 2017 film skimped on the sensuality. Again focusing on Italy during an idyllic summertime, Guadagnino introduced us to Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), two very different young men who come into one another’s orbit, unable to resist the magnetic pull.

“Call Me by Your Name’s” love story was gentle, swooning, fragile, sincere—it was about a relationship that couldn’t last because of bad timing and circumstance. (When the summer is over, Oliver must move on.) Such loves can often be the most powerful—intense and real, but tragically finite—and Chalamet and Hammer articulate the feeling any of us have had when we found our soulmate, only to know that we’ll eventually need to let them go. No wonder that every moment in “Call Me by Your Name” is suffused with a poignant impermanence: the lazy, happy days of just hanging out; the sexual escapades; the quiet glances between lovers. When I interviewed Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Chalamet’s father, about the film, this is how he described Guadagnino’s mysterious technique: “It’s wonderful filmmaking, what he allows us to see. Look at this weaving path. Look at this leaf. Look at the rain. Look at a waterfall. All of these images, in some perverse and magical language, help tell the story.” Guadagnino’s romances go beyond bodies and fluids—they connect us to the natural world, bring us back to an almost primal state. They stop time and energize the very act of being alive.

Love wasn’t at the forefront of his mind for his moody, unsettling remake of “Suspiria,” but he successfully combined horror and sex in his next feature. Based on a Camille DeAngelis novel, “Bones and All” starred Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet as lonely cannibals, named Maren and Lee, who encounter one another in the Midwest in the 1980s, two pariahs going on a road trip that develops into a romance. 

This was Guadagnino’s first attempt to examine love in the guise of a pulp genre. (“Bones and All” is easily his most gruesome film.) But look beyond the B-movie bloodshed and what emerges is a delicate tale of survival and seeking someone who truly understands you. Working in the same vein as his 2020 HBO series “We Are Who We Are”—which featured much less feasting on human flesh—Guadagnino crafted a coming-of-age story in which finding love is akin to accepting oneself. “Bones and All” has obvious YA trappings—specifically, the outlandish, melodramatic scenario and the brooding lovers—but Guadagnino took the romance seriously, the film’s graphic violence echoing the intensity of Maren and Lee’s devotion to one another. The world can be a terrifying, cruel place, Guadagnino argued, but if you have someone to share it with, things can be slightly more bearable. 

After the dark thrills of “A Bigger Splash,” the ardor of “Call Me by Your Name” and the frights of “Bones and All,” Guadagnino was due to deliver a pleasurable confection. But in keeping with his commitment to mapping love’s many facets, “Challengers” is hardly an empty diversion. Indeed, this look at best friends (Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor) who pine for the same woman (Zendaya), one of them marrying her but the other perhaps always capturing her heart, is just as insightful and touching as his earlier films regarding how love defines our lives. It’s just that, this time, Guadagnino is having an absolute blast.

Faist and O’Connor star as Art and Patrick, who were once close, both of them dreaming of being tennis champions. It’s now years later, and that dream has come true for Art, who’s married to Tashi (Zendaya), who might have been an all-time great if not for a catastrophic leg injury in college. They haven’t seen Patrick in years—she dated him back in school—but the two men are about to square off in a local tennis meet, their shared past playing out in a series of flashbacks.

We soon learn that, when they first met Tashi, Art and Patrick instantly fell in love with her, desperately trying to get her alone. Cut to an awkward threesome that led to some surprising revelations—Art and Patrick may be straight, but they didn’t mind engaging in a long liplock—and an eventual relationship between Tashi and Patrick. That romance wasn’t built for the long haul, however, and soon after Tashi catches feelings for nice-guy Art. Is it because he was there for her when she got injured? Is it because he seems like the sort of partner worth investing in long-term? “Challengers” never answers those questions, with Patrick occasionally reappearing in the narrative as he too tries to become a tennis pro. Tashi has married Art, but there’s something about Patrick that she can’t let go of. In many ways, the film’s present-day tennis match between the two men—which Tashi watches intently from the stands—is really a final showdown between all three of them. 

For all its sassy dialogue, sexy hookups and smoldering stares—the movie may set the record for do-me eyes—“Challengers” is about the struggles to make love last. How do we keep the passion alive once life and kids start cutting into our spontaneity? A sorta companion piece to “A Bigger Splash,” which also chronicled those nagging sexual itches we’re compelled to scratch, the new film is Guadagnino’s most complex, spanning many years and wrestling with the ebbs and flows of relationships, from sex to marriage to complacency to unresolved desires. His previous movies have only focused on one or two seasons of love, but “Challengers” is attuned to them all. The casual sensuality remains—Guadagnino’s camera lingers on his stars’ bodies like an excited new lover—but it’s accentuated by a newfound recognition that romance grows trickier, more nuanced (and, if you’re lucky, richer) as you and your mate grow older. That his most profound rumination on love is also his funniest is a marvelous development. 

In “I Am Love,” Luca Guadagnino, a huge Jonathan Demme fan, references a crucial scene from “Philadelphia” in which Tom Hanks gets emotional listening to a Maria Callas aria, translating what she’s singing to Denzel Washington. “I bring sorrow to those who love me … It was during this sorrow that love came to me,” Hanks says, visibly moved. He goes on, consumed by the music’s power. “Is everything around you just the blood and the mud? I am divine. I am oblivion. I am the god that comes down from the heavens to the Earth and makes of the Earth a heaven. I am love. I am love.”

That’s where “I Am Love” got its title, but it also feels like an unofficial mantra for Guadagnino. Love is a very personal thing for him, capable of destroying or redeeming his characters. Now 52, he has never lost his connection to the feverish euphoria that a new romance can kindle, but he’s also wise enough to know the pitfalls that can eventually snuff out those flames. “Challengers” is his latest love song, another indelible melody from a man who sees the impulse to love as natural breathing. Take it in.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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