Redressing Memory: Close-Up on Luca Guadagnino’s "The Staggering Girl"

The collaboration between the Italian auteur and the creative director of Valentino is an evocative film that collapses past and present.
Savina Petkova
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Luca Guadagnino's The Staggering Girl is exclusively showing February 15 - March 15, 2020 in MUBI's Luminaries series.
The Staggering Girl
The door to the past is, in fact, never a door. Symbols have become too rigid, way too material, to keep a rightful place in sayings such as this. In order to access the past, one must dispense with literariness and let memories invade the present in more enigmatic and subtle ways. In a similarly poetic way, Luca Guadagnino’s short film The Staggering Girl counters any desire for clear-cut narrative structure with layered storytelling and a protagonist’s fragmented memory that collapses in on itself. The past does creep up and haunts the film’s details, such as the extravagant blue, red, and white mantel worn by young and older versions of the female characters, the whispers of things past that transcend the off-screen space, or the heroine’s memoir that refuses to be written. Here, the past seems more tangible than present, and by aligning and enmeshing their timelines, Guadagnino gestures towards the potential of cinema to turn the fabric of memory inside out and inspect its stitches.
Francesca (Julianne Moore), an Italian-American writer, travels back to Rome to find her (now blind) mother Sofia (Marthe Keller) despondent about her painting, illness, and old age. In her childhood home, Francesca reminisces about earlier times, as the past encounters her around every corner. The film also stars Kyle MacLachlan in three roles—a father, a lover, a servant, all the men are either left behind or depart sooner rather than later—and Alba Rochrwacher as Vera, a high society dame. With its star-studded cast, the film is a treat of on-screen chemistry, as the possibility of a concealed love triangle hovers over every dialogue. Each relationship is defined by its missing part: the mother-daughter one minus the father, the lovers hiding from the spouse, all not entirely articulated yet speaking about what’s concealed and the power of penetrating a facade of reticence. With its dense atmosphere, a certain heaviness binds Francesca’s character to the ground; her gestures appear concise, but burdened with brute force. Be it the determination with which she thrusts her coat on the sofa, the neurotic unwrapping of flowers, or the briskness of wrapping her cloak around her shoulders, whether she is safeguarded by fabric or freeing herself from it, she does so with gravitas. In contrast, her speech is more hesitant, her expressions candid, body and mind no longer in congruity, a parallel to be made with the layered perception of time and its coexisting chronologies, exquisitely represented by the film’s multi-sensory cinematography.
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, working for a third time with Guadagnino, films interiors and haute couture as succulent fruit for the eye to inhale, taste, and touch. That same sensuous veil covers the multiple quotidian sequences of traversing, conversing, opening and closing doors, to multiply dimensions of the everyday and fuse past with present. While memories seem aesthetically indiscernible from imagination, editing them in sequence highlights their magnetic bonds. Shots are long enough to let the eye wander off, brushing over details such as early morning New York traffic. Rapid cuts subvert the continuity by offering a lower angle perspective, or a look across the street the camera sometimes allowing at least two (and sometimes more) points of view of a single event. It’s more of a spiral than a circle of attention, as the jump cuts gradually bring the spectator in closer to the situation, while the camera remains motionless and observant. Nature seems invitingly tranquil, as patches of sky in crimson sunsets and the shadows of umbrella pines, which are a signature of ancient Etrusco-Roman times, stage a pastoral backdrop with only glimpses of buildings—aqueducts, rusty doors, worn-out staircases—that suggest this setting is the  Eternal City, Rome. Frames are always full, geometrically or abundant with textures: of ruins, of dresses, or trees, even in long shot which enfold parts of the scenery but never seem too eager to capture the whole picture. The camera captures places as if they were faces—fragments of equal value that make up a mosaic of memories.
The static sequences bring forth substitutions of objects (one dress becomes another) and locations (geographical inconsistency) that mark the slippage from realism into stream of consciousness, a narrative technique usually reserved for modernist literature. Yet it holds more cinematic potential than, for example, flashbacks, which the film avoids altogether. The directorial decision to dispense with past, present, and future as a sequential timeline enables the spectator to participate in a surrealistic dream that aligns all possible planes of existence as equally valuable, as human memory would. Even if the film’s locations and plot drive seem to emanate from Francesca’s consciousness in a materialized form, the camera rarely aligns with a character’s point of view. What would be perceived as pure voyeurism here is instead rendered dream-like, keeping the uncanniness of her being both spectator and agent at the same time.
The Staggering Girl makes an existential claim through its sumptuous aesthetics. Guadagnino worked with Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of the Valentino fashion house, on the film’s production, in which stories and dresses become entangled in a celebration of both costume fabric and the textures of memory. In the film’s rolling credits, the dresses themselves are seen named, their emotional potential manifested by the multifold characters wearing the attire. “I suppose this is the journey that we’re on: from the literal to the abstract,” one of Kyle MacLachlan’s incarnations remarks, summarizing the film’s own credo in becoming a poetic trip into the labyrinthine corridors of individual memory, The Staggering Girl finds equal measures of comfort in both dressing up and disrobing singular recollections in a flux of consciousness, redefining the materiality of memory by drawing attention to its shapes, sizes, and textures. The door to the past may even be a dress.

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