“There’s a revolution going on inside of you,” says 14-year-old Fraser to Caitlin, two teenagers on the threshold of puberty and yearning to evade the shackles of adulthood in Luca Guadagnino’s new HBO series, We Are Who We Are. They meet during the 2016 US election in a microcosmic, conservative America: a fictional military base in the Italian town of Chioggia, south of Venice, on the threshold of a Trump presidency.
Like many of his movies, Guadagnino’s first television project, which he created, directed and executively produced, is another sunlight-caressed, intimate study of identity, the dynamics of power and desire, and the internal revolutions triggered by another person. Once again, the sounds and textures of an Italian landscape offer a seductive background and primal catalyst for the often-volcanic surfacing of repressed urges. “There are 8,000 tonnes of explosives buried in bunkers,” says Fraser (played by Jack Dylan Grazer), who arrives with his two military mothers, Maggie (Alice Braga) and Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), who is due to assume base command. “But on the surface everything is copacetic.”
Whether a metaphor for the erotic, violent, or both – as closely connected as they are in his films – this could be the premise of Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015) and Call Me by Your Name (2018), the Oscar-winning, Lombardy-set adaptation of André Aciman’s novel that transported audiences back to their first loves with palpable, peachy sensuality. The director has hitherto delved into the stylized, sumptuous realm of eroticized food, indolence and high aesthetics, garnering him a reputation as “a posh sort of director who indulges in beauty and luxury,” he himself has lamented (Guadagnino has collaborated with Jil Sander, Dior and Fendi, made films for the likes of Valentino Couture, and his documentary about Salvatore Ferragamo recently premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival). But, for HBO, he delivers an explicitly pertinent work. The eight-part series, with original music by Dev Hynes, airs in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election; each episode entitled Right Here, Right Now, as if urgently bidding viewers to find their present in it.
As usual, Guadagnino draws us into his characters’ inner worlds through layered details of wardrobe, set and soundscape. He left us with a four-minute close-up of 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) crying through the end credits of Call Me by Your Name. Now the director picks us up with a prolonged shot of Fraser, an introverted New York kid newly arrived at Venice airport, as if beaming into his tangled psyche. Disaffected, disconnected, and aptly at Lost and Found, Fraser is locked into the aggressive pop-scape on his headphones with which he can drown out reality. His bleached hair and yellow-and-black nails decree non-conformity; but his top lip is fluffed and his eyes as startled as Bambi’s. It transpires Fraser has never been kissed and, although otherwise gentle, he erupts into outbursts of violence against his mother, strangely echoing tensions on the base. Alternately poetic and clownish, he wanders around drunk and lost, reading William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys about a homosexual gang battling a repressive state.
All of the characters in the two central military families are lost; grappling to find who they will be, or who they have become, as they unwittingly stand on a crumbling precipice of values. “I don’t know who I am any more,” says Jenny, Caitlin’s Nigerian mother, who bakes cakes iced with stars and stripes – America is as omnipresent here as a cult god. She presents a future that Caitlin (newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón) vehemently rejects, instead emulating the macho sports culture of her father, Richard (Kid Cudi), a black Trump supporter with whom she boxes as her jealous brother Danny flirts with Islam.
In a place controlled by ID-cards, Caitlin and Fraser attempt to wrestle free from conventional boundaries of identity. At counterpoint to the monolithic grey of military camouflage, Fraser’s peacockish wardrobe references a 1960s youth counterculture: a flower-power version of a military vest, a suit emblazoned with the Rolling Stones logo. He spies on Caitlin as she reads Walt Whitman’s I am He that Aches with Love in class and on secret outings in her father’s clothes. Like Elio and Oliver in Call Me by Your Name, we watch them circle and finally find one another, floating adrift, away from everyone, on a boat on the lagoon. But their refusal to conform leads to the fracture of their group, ring-led by sexually free Brittany (Francesca Scorsese).
Desire is an anarchic force in Guadagnino’s films. The director gives Fraser a poster for Last Tango in Paris, in which his close friend Bertolucci explores the escape of society’s control through sexual transgression. In I Am Love, his muse Tilda Swinton plays the Russian immigrant wife of the head of Milanese textile dynasty; colourless in beige Jil Sander, she is as immaculate and dead as the women in paintings on the walls of their home, Villa Necchi Campiglio, a modernist mausoleum to her desire. Her erotic liaison with a young chef in the countryside, where she abandons her clothes (now red) and cuts her hair, subsequently leads to the accidental death of the family’s heir.
Even in Call Me by Your Name, outside of the Hellenistic culture that envelops Elio’s home, he and Oliver encounter a portrait of Mussolini, a reminder of the fascism they would have, and still could, encounter (Guadagnino will reprise their affair in the follow-up Find Me.) In Berlin-set horror Suspiria (2018), a group of female iconoclasts attempt to establish a new world order through eroticized violence – a reaction to the horrors of the Nazi past – against a backdrop of the 1977 Baader-Meinhof hijackings. Guadagnino, who is to direct an all-girl adaptation of Lord of the Flies, also examines female-wielded power in We Are Who We Are: Sarah issues commands while Hilary Clinton delivers campaign speeches on TV. At home, her dominance nearly obliterates her wife: “Sometimes, when she’s kissing me, it feels like she doesn’t know it’s me,” says Maggie. “It’s like she’s kissing a mirror.”
Most explicit here, the personal is quietly political in the precise, historical contexts of Guadagnino’s films, the prevailing order subverted by shifts and switches in identity that explore the kind of gender neutrality celebrated by Swinton. In A Bigger Splash, set against a backdrop of African migrant camps, she plays a David Bowie-like rockstar. In Suspiria, she secretly played a male Freudian psychiatrist, penis and all. In We Are Who We Are, Fraser is stained with blood as if mirroring the onset of Caitlin’s period – a switch, and one of the multiple omens as repressed tensions surface with the approaching election. What will erupt only time will tell. But, like Ocean Vuong’s Threshold – the poem he reads her, about a boy spying through a keyhole on his showering father – it is by examining a small part that you can reveal the truth of the whole.
We Are Who We Are is available on HBO and Sky Atlantic
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