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The frocks are sublime, with their billowing clouds of electric color, but the attempt to stitch them into an undercooked Jamesian narrative about dreams and memory not so much. Luca Guadagnino teams with Valentino creative director Pier Paolo Piccioli on The Staggering Girl, an experimental short film with a deluxe cast headed by Julianne Moore as a writer trying to persuade her near-blind but stubbornly independent mother to vacate her Roman villa and return with her to New York. Haute couture connoisseurs may swoon, but anyone sifting for meaning in the oblique fragments of Michael Mitnick’s screenplay will find fewer rewards.
Guadagnino can certainly attract top talent. Along with Moore, the cast includes the ever-commanding Marthe Keller as well as a glamor contingent upped by Kiki Layne, Mia Goth and Alba Rohrwacher, all of them fabulously attired, while Kyle MacLachlan gets the more thankless assignment of playing all the men in the story. He’s forced to wade through a lot of pretentious twaddle about the journey from the literal to the abstract in a world where all that was once deliberate has now lapsed into randomness. Whatevs.
The film is elegantly shot by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who conducted symphonies of magical summer light in Call Me by Your Name then opted for a murkier palette in Suspiria, a failed remake whose lugubriousness carries over into much of this nonlinear doodle. And it features an original score by no less than Ryuichi Sakamoto, mixing eerie atmospherics with delicate piano as the semblance of plot flashes back and forth across time and continents.
But this all feels like distractingly elaborate packaging for a promo reel for the Valentino Spring/Summer 2018 and Fall/Winter 2018-19 haute couture collections. There’s too little of substance to grab onto in the flimsy script by Mitnick, whose most notable credits to date have been as executive story editor on the short-lived HBO music-biz series Vinyl and screenwriter of The Current War, a frenetic yet somehow inert account of the race between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to introduce electricity. That 2017 film has been in limbo since getting caught up in the Weinstein mess and really ought to remain lost.
As for The Staggering Girl, Moore plays Francesca, who wears a luxurious assortment of capes, coats, palazzo pants and gowns while struggling with her memoir, in particular a passage concerning a sexually charged encounter at the opera with a man not her husband. Or was that encounter part of the experience of her artist mother (Keller, regal in a sheath of white hair and a vermillion robe)? Or perhaps the night at the opera belongs to the mystery woman played by Layne, whose musings about love drift up through the air vents in Francesca’s apartment.
Her mother’s paintings stir up the dust of the past for Francesca, who may not be able to write, but she can effortlessly negotiate cobblestones in vertiginous heels while carrying luggage, which requires real skill. And what she can do with basic black is pure artistry. Too bad Moore and the other actors weren’t given the comparable challenge of characters with some dimension to play. As it is, the risibly artsy film is a stream-of-consciousness psychological enigma that never coheres. It climaxes with a visual celebration of female freedom in a garden of runway delights that deserves better than being stuck on the end of this narrative void.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Kyle MacLachlan, Marthe Keller, Kiki Layne, Mia Goth, Alba Rohrwacher
Production companies: Valentino, Ibla Film, Frenesy Film, Rai Cinema
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: Michael Mitnick
Producers: Luca Guadagnino, Pier Paolo Piccioli, Eleonora Prateli
Executive producers: Marco Morabito, Stella Savino, Paolo Del Brocco
Director of photography: Sayombhu Mudkeeprom
Production designer: Roberta Federico, Monica Sallustio
Costume designer: Pier Paolo Piccioli
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Editor: Walter Fasano
Casting: Francine Maisler
Sales: Rai Com
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
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