Luca Guadagnino likes to keep the same company. When 2017’s Call Me by Your Name christened him the contemporary master of sensual cinema, an honorific he’d been building since the lush flora of I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino walked away determined to work with Timothée Chalamet again. And indeed, he recruited the young actor for another love story, Bones and All (out this weekend), though with a wildly divergent setting and storyline. In Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet ambled around the Italian countryside, finding love with an older man. Bones and All takes the actor far from the gauzy glow of Europe: In the downcast love story about two cannibals, Chalamet is shadowed by dreary skies and surrounded by the threat of decay permeating small-town America.
Guadagnino, 51, has been in a gray mood these last few years. If I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and Call Me by Your Name favored naked bodies, green vistas, and decadent food, his last three projects, which include his remake of the Grand Guignol-esque Suspiria and the woefully underseen HBO series We Are Who We Are, adopt cloudier hues. He insists the transition wasn’t intentional, and it’s not as if Guadagnino’s sunny work trafficked in resolute optimism. But while exploring different genres and locales, he has shown he cannot be reduced to a single aesthetic. He keeps reuniting with many of the same collaborators, such as Dakota Johnson, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tilda Swinton, with whom he has worked on and off since his 1999 debut, The Protagonists. What surrounds them is never familiar.
Bones and All‘s grayness seems not to have bled into Guadagnino’s offscreen drive, and it adds a bittersweet air to the romance at the story’s late-’80s core. Chalamet and Taylor Russell (best known for the A24 drama Waves) play Lee and Maren, Midwestern striplings who share a specific inclination toward cannibalism. They’re outcasts, mutually alienated from a world that leaves no room for the habit they cannot break. The couple embark on a road trip, with Maren searching for her absent mother in hopes of better understanding her identity.
Bones and All has grisly moments—cannibals must eat, after all—but nothing like the symphony of exploding heads that concluded Guadaganino’s Suspiria. The reference points he gave his actors were less Texas Chain Saw Massacre and more Jeanne Dielman, the revered Belgian film depicting a solitary housewife going about her routine.
Based on Camille DeAngelis’ young-adult novel from 2015, Bones and All has been called an analogy for addiction or queerness. Guadagnino accepts any assessment people bring to his work, but he’s not keen on conspicuous metaphors. ”More than anything else, it’s a movie about loneliness, a sense of abandonment,” he says while being ferried to Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque theater, which recently hosted a weeklong tribute to his work. “To be a human being is to be alone. That’s how I feel. In a way, it’s also about the process of trying to find a way not to be alone. It’s what I consider the thing that I’m most attracted by, which is characters that are mavericks, that are underdogs—people at the fringe of the center, not in the center. And in general, it’s a movie that gives me the opportunity to tell a story about people doing things that are extreme. And yet we try not to judge them, but to be one of them.”
It’s not that Guadagnino would never make a straightforward horror movie. He and screenwriter David Kajganich, who first collaborated on A Bigger Splash, met because Guadaganino liked an adaptation of Stephen King’s It that Kajganich had written. (Warner Bros. didn’t move forward with Kajganich’s version, robbing us of the chance to experience It through Guadagnino’s lens.) But DeAngelis’ book doesn’t call for a sensationalistic approach.
“[Maren and Lee] have a condition that they have to deal with, but we as an audience don’t have to be oppressed by the condition that they suffer from,” Guadagnino says. “So the movie is not a movie in the sense that it values the element of the horror to bake it into an exploitative shock-value film. It’s actually the opposite. I want to see the behavior of these people being what they are, trying to overcome who they are, and failing through the process. It’s more about, ‘How do you deal with the impossibility within your nature and find a way of being loved by someone who actually wants to see who you are beyond the burden you’re carrying within yourself?”
Listening to Guadagnino talk is like sitting in on a skillful college seminar. He has the charisma of your most engaging professor, someone who sees life in poetic terms and wants to know if you share his zest—a logical endpoint considering his father taught Italian literature. Observers sometimes refer to his actors as muses because his camera projects so much intimacy onto them. That’s most true of Tilda Swinton, whom Guadagino sees as a partner rather than a muse. He describes Chalamet and We Are Who We Are‘s Jack Dylan Grazer in similar terms, and it’s clear he conjures in young stars an openness that most directors can’t.
When shooting the 2020 miniseries in Italy, Grazer and his colleagues would socialize at their hotel’s bar, not unlike the televised soccer matches the Bones and All cast watched together in Cincinnati. We Are Who We Are was about rowdy American teenagers living on an Italian military base where a sense of displacement leads to debauchery. Sometimes the line between reality and fiction blurred. Every now and then, Guadagnino would join for a cocktail. Grazer got the sense that he just wanted to absorb their humor and perspectives, possibly as a way of learning about the world. “He’s a voyeur in the best way you could possibly imagine,” Grazer says. “He has a Freudian brain. Every interaction is sex. Not intercourse, but everything, in a way, is reproductive.”
Jessica Harper, who has small roles in Suspiria and Bones and All, calls Guadagnino a “whirlwind of creativity.” Part of his magnetism, she says, comes from his height: At 6 feet, he looms over most of the people around him. His actors speak of him like disciples, which helps to explain why he’s become such a prolific art-house fixture, one who has been increasingly wooed by larger studios and streamers. In addition to an already wrapped tennis comedy starring Zendaya and Josh O’Connor that’s slated to open in 2023, he has been attached to a Jake Gyllenhaal thriller, a biopic about Hollywood hustler Scotty Bowers, an Audrey Hepburn biopic starring Rooney Mara, an expensive TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, and a Scarface remake. (“I cannot talk about the property of a big studio like Universal,” he says when I ask about its status.) Every A-list filmmaker pursues material that winds up without sufficient financing or creative synergy, and Guadagnino’s list of bygone films is a testament to his hot streak. People want in on his magic. “It’s good,” he says of the creative churn. He and Kajganich are currently prepping a war movie. “I think I’ve spent more nights in Luca’s apartments as a guest than anywhere else I’ve ever spent time,” the screenwriter says.
Then there’s the matter of the Call Me by Your Name installments Guadagnino talked about making after the original found such devoted admirers. Are they jeopardized by the sexual abuse allegations against Chalamet’s co-star, Armie Hammer? Guadagnino had at one point floated the idea of Dakota Johnson portraying the wife of Hammer’s character. Might he simply shift the focus to Chalamet’s bookish Elio Perlman?
“I loved those characters and the actors playing those characters to the degree that I felt somehow connected with the very legendary cycle of movies about the same character, Antoine Doinel, by François Truffaut, which were four movies and one short film,” Guadagnino says, referring to the French director’s follow-ups to the coming-of-age classic The 400 Blows. ”They were not sequels—that’s an American concept. They were chronicles in which the great Truffaut was bringing episodes in the life of Antoine Doinel. I thought that was a very good possibility for the Perlman family and the people around them. And I still believe it’s absolutely valuable, so whenever there’s going to be a time and moment in which the next chapter in the lives of these people can be told, I’m sure we will be telling it. Everything else is preposterous and completely out of context of this idea of the chronicles of Elio Perlman and his life. I think that everyone who needs to be back, they will be back.”
With the Zendaya tennis comedy, called Challengers, Guadagnino will close the book on his gray mood. It’s time to go sexy and funny, which, for whatever it’s worth, more closely resembles the way his collaborators describe him. But knowing Guadagnino, there’s probably something unexpected in store, some kind of serve that will again remind us why he’s one of the shrewdest directors out there. He likes to make films about outsiders, because that’s how he felt growing up. But Guadagnino is now firmly on the inside of his profession.
“I try not to think aesthetically,” he says. “I try to think in terms of story and character, and then the characters tell me where they are leading me. It’s a circus. Wherever you pitch your tent, that’s your home.”