One positive regarding the rise of streaming services is they’ve given filmmakers a place to showcase their work that would not fit neatly onto cinema screens. Recently, Paul Thomas Anderson and Thom Yorke’s glorious one-reeler Anima and David Lynch’s absurdist comedy short What Did Jack Do? made their way onto Netflix’s library. Over on Amazon Prime, meanwhile, Hiro Murai and Donald Glover’s 56-minute musical Guava Island found a home. In fact, just last week, Irish writer-director Kate Dolan’s terrific bite-sized horror Catcalls dropped on Shudder.
Now arthouse streaming platform Mubi – a service with 30 films always available to stream, each day adding and taking away one – has followed its contemporaries. They snapped up the rights for The Staggering Girl, a 37-minute drama directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria 2018) produced in collaboration with Italian clothing company Valentino. Now available to watch on the service until March 15, sadly it’s nowhere near the quality of the shorts mentioned above.
A miscast Julianne Moore plays Francesca, an Italian American (really?) writer. She returns to Rome to move her aging near-blind mother Sofia (Marthe Keller) from their Italian family estate – where Francesca’s mum lives with a caretaker played by Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan – into an old age facility. Staying in her childhood home, Moore’s character begins to reminisce of her past – her memories shown to viewers in dreamlike hazy fragments where Mia Goth plays a young version of her mother.
The Staggering Girl should have been a home run. Since his breakthrough in 2009 with I Am Love, the worlds of Guadagnino’s films all have a luscious, luxurious sartorial quality about them, thanks to their elegant settings and their characters’ incredible wardrobes. On paper, he’s a perfect choice to helm what is essentially branded content for an haute couture line.
There’s a few images and moments in The Staggering Girl that will evoke memories of Guadagnino’s better work, most notably its final minutes. A lovely scene of various women (including arthouse darlings Alba Rohrwacher and KiKi Layne) spontaneously dancing, it’s both the best showcase of Valentino’s stunning dresses and the closest the short comes to recapturing the tone of the filmmaker’s sensuous take on Suspiria. That said, it’s the script by Michael Mitnick (The Current War) that’s the real problem with this short.
The aforementioned Anima and What Did Jack Do? both told non-traditional, non-linear, surrealist stories. Yet, there was an emotional underpinning to them to which viewers could relate. In Anima, it was Thom Yorke trying to find love in a more heightened nightmarish version of reality. In Lynch’s short it was the tale of a love which curdled into jealousy and violence (even if it was between a monkey and a hen).
The Staggering Girl lacks that emotional spark. Even though the talent involved with the short and the length of it suggest it’s a proper movie, it’s filled with the type of superficial dialogue and characters you’d see in one of those po-faced celebrity perfume ads. Everyone rattles off pretentious musings about topics like the journey from the literal to the abstract or delivers rehearsed to the point of stiffness monologues about their sexual escapades.
It’s the catch-22 of this project. Guadagnino clearly wants to make a beautiful real movie about identity, memory and time. Yet, Mitnick’s script feels at odds with that, something best watched in a minute chunk, where one barely has the time to register how artificial it feels.
That goes for the clothes and the casting too. We never buy Moore as a writer as we watch her put pen to paper in an avant-garde pantsuit which looks like something the witches in Suspiria might wear. We never understand the dynamic between Francesca and her mother Sofia because the actors playing the younger versions of their characters look like they have maybe 10 years of a difference in age, if that. We never get why MacLachlan plays three characters, one of whom has a moustache to make it clear to viewers he’s bad news. And why is KiKi Layne always talking through vents, other than the fact Guadagnino, as hinted by the Woody Allen-styled credits, likes the 1988 drama Another Woman. The film doesn’t need to make sense on a literal level. But even metaphorically the viewer is left grasping at straws in the search for meaning in the oblique.
Without a strong screenplay to support him this time around – James Ivory picked up an Oscar for penning Call Me by Your Name – and the fact that The Staggering Girl is literally Valentino advertising, the beauty Guadagnino conjures here feels like the filmmaker slipping into pastiche territory for the first time. Here’s hoping his upcoming HBO series We Are Who We Are recaptures his magic and that the mediocre reviews for his latest don’t deter Mubi from snapping up more oddities from auteurs. After all, it would be great for someone to make Gaspar Noe’s Lux Aeterna or Yorgos Lanthimos’ Nimic available to stream…