Culinary Temptations: Italian Cuisine in Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Desire Trilogy’
How Luca Guadagnino communicates sensuality and passion through the use of food in ‘I Am Love,’ ‘A Bigger Splash,’ and ‘Call Me by Your Name.’
By Shelby Cooke
In Luca Guadagnino’s self-described ‘Desire Trilogy,’ the idea of love and lust are manifested in a variety of forms. The trilogy — which consists of 2009’s I Am Love, 2015’s A Bigger Splash, and 2017’s Call Me by Your Name — uses the backdrop of the Italian countryside to explore the lives of wealthy foreigners who struggle with understanding what they desire and why. While the films are all different in their main storylines, they do share many commonalities: each film, draped in the gorgeous warmth of the Italian summertime, explores how yearning can have both transformative and damaging consequences, as desire is equal parts destruction and birth.
Regardless of narrative, the aesthetics of Guadagnino’s films, as critic Joanna Di Mattia notes in Senses of Cinema, play a vital role in communicating the palpability of lust: “Guadagnino develops and refines an erotic language that conveys not only what desire looks like, but more importantly, what it feels like. The interplay of objects and physical space, as well as an emphasis on the space between actor’s bodies, captures the urgency of the erotic experience.”
And included in these sensory aesthetics is Italy: the glow of blossoming vines, the smell of calming sea air, the heat of late-August sunshine. Guadagnino uses the Italian landscape and culture to build these romantic worlds, taking from his native country the beauty in the simplicity around him. This is most prevalent in his use of food.
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Italian food, renowned around the world as the cuisine of passion, is an indispensable factor in the romances of Guadagnino’s films. While food does serve as an aesthetic tool for Guadagnino, it is also utilized as a vehicle for the expression of desire, communicating to the audience the inner romantic cravings of each film’s protagonists. The food, always present and always tempting, reflects the complex relationship between the characters and their emotions.
I Am Love is the first film in the trilogy and also the most food-oriented. Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian woman married to a wealthy Italian businessman, is trapped as an upper-class housewife, longing for something of her own, as well as for her past in Russia. After eating at a restaurant belonging to Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a friend of her son, Emma falls in love with the elusive younger man and his cooking, rediscovering the pleasures and passions of life via the chef.
Throughout I Am Love, Guadagnino shows us how food, whether exquisite fine dining or rustic homemade meals, becomes a vehicle for igniting passion. Emma’s two loves are Antonio and her homeland, both of which are driven by the flavors of lovingly made dishes. Emma is able to express her emotions and be vulnerable when she eats Antonio’s prawns or the ancestral Russian ukha, the dishes allowing her to break free from the mundanity of her married life. Food provides Emma an escape from her reality, transporting her to a place of sensual tranquillity.
Yet, in the trilogy’s second film, A Bigger Splash, food is almost a forbidding tool used to foreshadow the toxic relationships between the film’s cast of characters. Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a rock star recovering from vocal cord surgery, and her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) hide away from the prying world in a remote Italian village. Their quiet retreat is soon ruined when Marianne’s eccentric ex-boyfriend, music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), shows up with the daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) he only just discovered he had. The film transitions into a power-play between the pairs as feelings of unrequited love, lustful manipulation, and nostalgic longing fuel jealous sexual tensions.
Unlike the luscious and succulent food seen in I Am Love and Call Me by Your Name, A Bigger Splash presents food in a more ominous and unsettling manner. There are very few appearances of food and eating throughout the film, but, when they come, they come with feelings of uncanny cynicism: an intense close-up of a fish being gutted, bugs flying around an unkempt kitchen, geckos falling onto a table and frightening diners, arguments breaking out at dinner. This unsettling feeling around food (something that is meant to be nourishing and soulful) mimics the restlessness amongst the characters. Harry and Penelope’s unwelcome appearance disrupts the peace in Marianne and Paul’s relationship. Their presence is like the dead fish or the used dishes: something that should be alluring and tasty, but, at this moment, is raw and dirty. There is something enticing about them and the food in the villa, but there’s clearly something not quite right about it as well.
Finally, in Call Me by Your Name — the most well-known film of the trilogy — Guadagnino combines these two food allegories through the use of the forbidden fruit, both a delicious natural product and a seductive danger.
In the film, 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) embarks on a journey of sexual discovery when his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites handsome research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) to stay with the family in northern Italy for the summer holidays. Elio, unsure of his sexuality, develops an attraction to Oliver, which is reciprocated as the two slowly start to fall in love.
Because of the film’s setting and season, various types of fruit make appearances throughout the story. Ripe and juicy, hanging from tree branches and picked so casually, these stone fruits come to symbolize Elio and Oliver’s summer romance. Their connection, while being culturally unacceptable both because of their homosexual attraction and their age gap, feels organic and instinctive. But the temptation and intrigue of entering a homosexual love affair overpower their inclination to be “good.” Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, the seductive allure of a harmless piece of fruit could destroy the (heteronormative) life they live. And, just like Eve, both Elio and Oliver eat the fruit, fulfilling their hunger for one another despite knowing that their relationship is socially taboo.
In the May 2010 edition of Sight & Sound, Jonathan Romney, in conversation with Luca Guadagnino, remarks on the use of food in I Am Love: “In this film you do something that’s almost impossible in cinema, which is to communicate the pleasure of taste — that moment of erotic and spiritual epiphany when Emma eats the prawn dish.” Guadagnino replies: “It may seem dumb, but I think in the best cases, a great meal is a political act of resistance.”
Guadagnino’s stylization of Italy is more than just aesthetic; rather, he captures the essence of the nation through the adoration of cuisine. The way a character touches a piece of fruit, bites into a meticulously crafted dish, or sniffs the aroma of a chef at work communicates their innermost intentions. It creates a visceral sensation of sexuality and want. In the Desire Trilogy, food, one of the most common and everyday concepts in the world, comes to represent a tangible manifestation of the very complex emotion the films are dedicated to.