All my life, I wanted to be Luchino Visconti. Since I was a child and saw his film, “Senso”, I was spoiled. His sense of beauty is what I always loved. I am transfixed by “The Leopard” – people, places, smell, taste. I was totally in love with the images, with the historical mixture in them. He is the last European director who translated my sensibility, visually and aesthetically. Each image says something. Take the opening scene – you see curtains of the incredible room in the Villa Boscogrande moving in the Mediterranean breeze, you hear the prayer being recited behind them and then you hear the voices around the dead soldier in the garden. This is beautiful.
Once I met Visconti in London around the time “Death in Venice” came out. I was with my friend Anna Piaggi. We went to the Roundhouse and saw him there. I was so nervous, but I went up to him and asked him in French: “Why do you always do your films in costume?” “Young man,” he said, “without tradition we’re nothing.” This has been my motto ever since. Our mother used to read to us from “The Leopard” when it came out. Every word captivated me. It was the beginning of an obsession. I reread it every two years; sometimes the translation is a success, sometimes it is a mess. I see the film every year. Every time, I think of my mother.
I cannot live without Sicily, the beauty of Sicily. Sicilians are extreme, baroque, over the top. Visconti captures everything. The ball scene on its own is a study of human behaviour. I want the past to return to me. The past speaks to me through books and images. When I think about “The Leopard”, I do extravagant things with sable, jewels, Maltese crosses, buckles on silk. I get inspiration from the colours and the light and the heat – brocades in yellow or fuchsia, braiding on boots, a buckle in gold, taffeta and velvet. So many materials that aren’t used and people don’t like. I’ve found all sorts of things that I can put back in the mountain of the shoe – mink and chinchilla and astrakhan. I wanted to be a set designer but I can’t stand movie people. It’s like talking to aliens.
Ten years ago I went to Ciminna in Sicily. It was hot and I wanted to find the palazzo where the film was shot. There was nothing there. I asked some old Sicilian men, dressed in black sitting around a coffee table on the terrace of a dingy café, where Visconti shot the film. One of them said he had been an extra. The façade of the palazzo, it turned out, had been made from plaster and shipped over from Cinecittà, the film studios in Rome. Where it stood, there are just two little houses.