Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who radiates the same warmth and tactility in person as his films do from the screen, explains that for him, “shooting a movie is the most annoying thing in the world, but in this case, it was the least annoying.” Talking to me earlier this year at the Melbourne International Film Festival, he’s referring to the making of Call Me by Your Name, his gorgeous adaptation of the acclaimed 2007 novel by Egyptian-American writer André Aciman.
Since the film’s ecstatic premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it has continued to collect rave reviews and devotees around the world. It’s not surprising audiences have responded with inflamed fervour to this sensual, sexy love story between two young men – 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and the 24-year-old American object of his desire, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Guadagnino may be quite serious when he says that filmmaking is a “bother” and “inconvenience”. But to hear him talk about the circuitous road travelled to bring Call Me by Your Name to life, it’s clear it was a transformative experience for him and everyone else involved.
Set during the summer of 1983 “somewhere in Northern Italy” as the opening credits declare, Call Me by Your Name charts the intellectually precocious Elio’s sexual and emotional awakening. Oliver is that year’s graduate student, staying with the Perlmans at their holiday villa for six weeks to work on his own manuscript and help Mr Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a classics professor, with his research.
“We all felt like a family,” Guadagnino explains. “It was a benign set. Things happened in a very natural way.” Chalamet came to Italy several weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin to practise the language, alongside the piano and guitar, in which Elio is skilled. A few weeks later, Hammer arrived, so he and Chalamet could acclimatise to one other. As the only two English speakers for miles, they forged a fast bond, spending days together talking and riding bikes around town, just like Elio and Oliver do. “It was organic,” Guadagnino explains. “They really loved each other.”
That closeness is vital. After wasting weeks trying to figure out how the other feels, Elio and Oliver find themselves in each other. Their romance isn’t judged; their sexuality is expressed and experienced without labels. Elio has sex with a female friend, then with Oliver and falls deeply in love. His desire for Oliver is a coming out that inflames and confuses him, moving from contempt, curiosity and admiration to full-blown carnality. Chalamet, in a performance that will be unrivalled in complexity, openness and authenticity this year, embodies Elio’s yearning at a molecular level. We feel it in his every glance and gesture as Call Me by Your Name unspools languidly into one of the sexiest slow dances two characters have taken with each other in recent memory.
As Guadagnino explains, Call Me by Your Name was in various stages of production for nearly a decade before he took the director’s reins. Producers first contacted him “to help them understand where the city of ‘B’, as the book calls it, is located in Italy”. Guadagnino effectively functioned as a location scout – he identifies ‘B’ as Bordighera on the Italian Riviera – and put together a budget. “We went through that, and they offered me an executive producer credit,” he explains.
His assistance extended to finding a suitable director, while producers hinted he should take on that role himself. At least 10 were approached, including 89-year-old James Ivory, the director of literary adaptations including A Room With a View (1985) and Howards End (1992), who developed the screenplay with Guadagnino and wrote the final version.
With the project in seemingly perpetual limbo, Guadagnino finally agreed to direct, shooting fast and with a drastically reduced budget. His initial resistance, he says, was about avoiding the view of him as a storyteller of the rich and privileged. After both I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015), Guadagnino suggests, “People think that I am some sort of director of ‘posh’ people, which is not remotely true to who I am.” What eventually hooked him about Call Me by Your Name was the chance to tell Elio’s story, “the turmoil of a kid experiencing so many feelings all at the same time,” and the personal challenge of shooting two films in one year. Suspiria, his reimagining of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, went into production not long after Call Me by Your Name and will be released in 2018.
Guadagnino was also keen to transpose the Ligurian setting of the novel to the Lombardy region. This allowed him to shoot in and around Crema, where he lives, and return to his own bed to sleep at the end of the day. Guadagnino recounts with good humour the attitude of the locals to the intrusion of his cameras. “The mayor of Crema was incredibly helpful, but the citizens less so. There were protests in the newspapers about us taking over the streets, squares.” But as Guadagnino explains, it was worth the drama. “The good news about Crema is that no one has shot films there forever, so there is something pure about it on-screen.”
Location, as it turns out, is everything, and Guadagnino jumped at the chance to set the film in a 17th century villa he had admired from afar. He first saw the house “in a moment of megalomania in my life when I wanted a countryside estate. I wanted it, but I couldn’t afford it.” Guadagnino suggests making movies allows you to get closer to the things you want: “I decided I’m going to put the story of the film in that house, the Perlmans are going to live in it and it’s going to be mine forever.” Now that he’s made a film at the villa, he’s not even sure if he likes it anymore. “It’s fairly dangerous to make a movie in a place that you love. You can wear out your attraction to it,” he warns.
Despite the presence of American actors, Call Me by Your Name is very much a European film, influenced by what Guadagnino calls the “untameable bodies of desire” in films by his idols, Eric Rohmer, Maurice Pialat and Bernardo Bertolucci. Films like Bertolucci’s La Luna (1979) and Pialat’s À nos amours (1983) treat sexual desire with frank seriousness in countryside settings. “A lot of the cinema I saw when I grew up that really made an impression on me is becoming the structure of my imagery involuntarily.”
Nevertheless, Call Me by Your Name is very much a Luca Guadagnino film, with the expected sensual emphasis on food and bodies. But if A Bigger Splash was all frenetic energy choreographed to a rock beat, here the pace is much more relaxed and classical. Guadagnino wanted to tell this story as simply and directly as possible, for his camera to be “completely invisible and convey a great deal of intimacy”. He achieved this with smart choices – shooting with the one 35mm camera lens, often positioning the camera low, moving it around less than is his custom and using mostly wide shots. As a result, the film has an erotic and emotional immediacy that weaves a heady spell, tethering us directly to Elio’s experience.
While Aciman’s novel unfolded from the perspective of the older Elio remembering his brief romance with Oliver, Guadagnino is adamant he didn’t want to use voiceover narration to create the same closeness. Instead, music – classical and popular – helps bridge the gap between Elio and the audience. In particular, two new songs by Sufjan Stevens, "Mystery of Love" and "Visions of Gideon", play at key moments, alongside a new version of an older song, "Futile Devices", which has lyrics that seem plucked directly from Elio’s psyche. Each provides insight and emotional texture. Of Stevens, Guadagnino says, “I wanted his voice to be the testimony of the film.”
Guadagnino speaks of Chalamet and Hammer with enormous love and respect. He first met Chalamet when the actor was 17. Regardless of who ended up directing the film, he was always going to be Elio. “Timmy,” as he calls him, “is Elio.” Casting Hammer (who at 31, either convinces or doesn’t as a 24-year-old, depending on which commentary you read) was also an easy choice for Guadagnino, who was drawn to Hammer’s “old-fashioned beauty”. For Guadagnino, he possesses Oliver’s requisite movie star qualities as well as the sensitivity and warmth that inevitably draw Elio to him.
Chalamet and Hammer have unmistakable chemistry, which Guadagnino nurtured through trust. As he explains, so much of what we see between them “comes from their intelligence [and] the invisible things that spring out from nowhere, whether it’s an intuition at the last minute, or how one touches the other”. Like Elio and Oliver, there was “total acceptance of the other” between the actors. This established the fabric of “deep compassion” that Guadagnino wants Call Me by Your Name’s audiences to take home with them from the cinema more than anything else.
Watch 'Call Me By Your Name'
Friday 5 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand for 14 days)
Saturday 6 March, 11:30pm on SBS
Italy, France, 2017
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English, Italian
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg