“Once the world was deliberate. Now, it’s randomness, and no one seems to mind.” These words, spoken by one of Kyle MacLachlan’s three characters (he is, yes, all the men in the film — more on this later) seems to gesture at the ethos of “The Staggering Girl,” a short film directed by Luca Guadagnino in collaboration with Valentino’s creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli. In the “Call Me By Your Name” director’s own estimation, the short film’s stream of consciousness structure is meant to “capture the feel of memory on film” by layering stories “on top of each other.” The story of Francesca (Julianne Moore), a Italian-American memoirist who returns to Italy to care for her aging mother Sofia (Marthe Keller), intends to evoke this compressed, collapsed sense of memory through seeming randomness that is actually deliberate.
Instead, “The Staggering Girl” commits a far graver infraction: Its predominant effect is randomness, masquerading as deliberate, at the behest of unruly aestheticism that gestures at meaning and flails. The end result is a film that leaves us somehow wanting more and less at the same time.
Guadagnino bounces enigmatically from the spartan New York apartment where Francesca writes, to a sophisticated party scene where Francesca encounters Vera (“Happy As Lazzaro“‘s Alba Rohrwacher), to Francesca’s rustic childhood home in Italy where Sofia still lives. Throughout, random images and sounds recur, including a disembodied narration that seems to emanate from Francesca’s consciousness, as well as a mysterious figure (KiKi Layne) whom Francesca feels compelled to chase. Younger iterations of Francesca and Sofia also run rampant throughout the film, occasionally draping a multicolored, embroidered cloak over her shoulders. Another recursive figure is “Twin Peaks”’ Kyle MacLachlan, who is credited as three different characters, Matteo, Bruno, and Angelo, none of whom matter much to the narrative, all of whom only confound logistics further.
Guadagnino attempts an admirable feat by blending mediums. With pulsing ambient synth by Ryuichi Sakamoto and a muted, rich visual palette from cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, “The Staggering Girl” bears no shortage in evocative atmosphere. Not to mention, the elegant costuming courtesy of Valentino, which outfits Francesca first in flowy palazzo pants, then a billowy black evening gown. An impromptu dance party of ethereal young women, set to Sakamoto’s electronic orchestra, marks a particular visual highlight.
And true, there’s nothing inherently disagreeable about a nonlinear narrative or experimental storytelling. But to achieve the trans-medial artwork he seems to have striven for requires at least a degree of attentiveness to feeling. Perhaps the closest gesture is a monologue from one of MacLachlan’s characters. “I suppose this is the journey that we’re on from the literal to the abstract,” he says. Like his character interprets Sofia’s artwork, we can just about make out the contours of what we’re meant to see: a narrative about memory and family that transgresses the boundaries of time, space, and Kyle MacLachlan’s identity.
Unfortunately, the resulting film is an aesthetically rich, yet semiotically empty ode to Valentino couture. Guadagnino may have insisted that “The Staggering Girl” is not an ad. Sadly, it’s about as close to pure commercialism as cinema can get without fitting into the MCU. [C]