Sensual Summer: Luca Guadagnino's 'Call Me by Your Name' captures the chemistry of attraction

Movies Features

“You will not want to live in Suspiria,” Luca Guadagnino jokes when he hears I secretly wish to reside in one of his sun-kissed, sensual films that tickle my taste buds. The contemporary Italian master, whose films exclusively cater to grownups with their emotional maturity and succulently caress, awaken and expand the five senses, was still finishing his remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic when he joined me during the 2017 New York Film Festival, where his sensational film Call Me By Your Name (from Sony Pictures Classics) screened.

“I want to preserve the blast and waves of emotions Suspiria made me feel when I saw it at the age of 14,” Guadagnino says of his hopes for the adaptation. For anyone who has seen at least one of his recent films and experienced the subtle way he transmits intangible frissons of passion to his audience, “waves of emotions” are a safe expectation from Guadagnino’s version of Suspiria, as that “explosion of feelings” is a clear through-line connecting his late filmography.

In the luxurious I Am Love (2009), he portrayed the burgeoning desires of a wealthy, proper married woman in Milan that lead her to a steamy affair with her cook. In the sultry A Bigger Splash (2015), he focused on a privileged quartet of Americans vacationing on the Italian island of Pantelleria while rekindling old flames and settling scores. And now with the lushly beautiful, boundlessly compassionate Call Me By Your Name, a smash hit at Sundance 2017 and a film festival darling ever since, the director is back with another arousing story of love, yearning and sexual awakening.

“After I finished Call Me by Your Name, I realized [these three films could be grouped] into a trilogy of desire,” says the filmmaker, who calls himself an artisan, a collaborator and ultimately a control freak when it comes to his rich, impeccably dressed, lived-in sets and pitch-perfect costumes. “In [I Am Love], desire is a liberating force with all its consequences. In [A Bigger Splash], [desire] is the prism through which nostalgia unleashes and [tears] everybody apart. [Call Me by Your Name] is about desire as a force of knowledge, of something that makes you become [the person you are]. So the first one is a tragedy, the second one is a farce, and the third one is an idyll.”

Adapted by veteran filmmaker James Ivory from André Aciman’s acclaimed 2007 novel, the ’80s-set Call Me By Your Name charts the romance between Elio (the revelatory Timothée Chalamet, a movie star in the making), the teenage son of an intellectual academic family residing at an Italian countryside villa, and Oliver (Armie Hammer, charismatic as ever), a visiting American intern who moves in with Elio’s family (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar as the Perlmans) for the summer. Over several leisurely, sun-soaked weeks, generous helpings of summer fruits and delectable dishes, and afternoons spent by the river or the pool, Elio and Oliver fall in love and explore a secret, passionate relationship that evokes feelings of rhapsody and melancholy in the viewer. Remaining true to his style and storytelling priorities, Guadagnino laces Call Me By Your Name with motifs of longing, creating perhaps the most seductive film of his career.

“We are a society of enjoyment. And we are being imposed to the injunction of enjoyment instead of being encouraged to explore our desires,” he responds when asked about the muted presence of sex in contemporary cinema, a trend he defies. “In a psychoanalytical way, the crossroads where the Peter Pan complex meets ultra-capitalism [creates] an enjoyment that [safely] leaves things as they are,” he contends. “It's easier to create a spectacle [that acts as a] narcotic to the impulses of desire. I believe that we are organisms of desire. I'm interested in the possibility of exploring the behavior that informs our actions when we are urged by what Philippe Garrel would call la naissance de l'amour [the birth of love]…the birth of desire.”

Guadagnino acknowledges Call Me By Your Name’s kinship with the works of directors like Bernardo Bertolucci and Eric Rohmer. “I really thought a lot about both of them, but also Jacques Rivette, Jean Renoir and Maurice Pialat while I was doing this film. [For Bertolucci], I was interested in The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist. I was also interested in Luna.”

A passion for films and filmmaking overtook Guadagnino at an early age. “I wanted to be a director since I was really young. I held my Super 8 camera when I was eight or nine,” he recalls. “My father loves cinema very much—he was always watching a lot of films. He brought me to these theatres to see films with him. I think [my father] is the early influence on me. I think [my love for cinema is also] about voyeurism. As far as I remember, I've always been a voyeur, someone who stares at things more than [engaging] in action.”

But Guadagnino chose to not go to film school, as he simply detested the idea, believing it’s impossible to make someone a filmmaker through schooling. He practiced film criticism once upon a time, an art form he still has a great deal of respect for. “When the reviews are well-written, even if they're negative but intelligently written, they are beautiful to read.”

Since he was doing Suspiria within the same year, Guadagnino wanted Call Me By Your Name to be set in a more comfortable place, close to his home around the Crema region, where he has been living for seven years. “I like the idea of that kind of countryside very much,” he says—even if it rained 28 out of the 34 days they shot. “So it's all artificial light. [Our cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom] did great work.”

Pre-production was even more challenging, as the film took a laborious path to fruition. Together with James Ivory, a longtime friend, he went through several phases of the script, sometimes daunted by the resources the project required. At first Ivory was supposed to make the movie, but they couldn’t find a financially viable way to make that happen. “I would have loved to see this film by him,” says Guadagnino with a genuine sense of lament in his voice. “[But in the end, we made] a much smaller movie, and we succeeded. I don't know what triggered me [to make this film]. The reason probably was to work with Armie and Timothée.”

Guadagnino knew instantly and instinctively that Chalamet, whom he met years ago through his agent, would be perfect for the lead role. He loved the actor in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and heard much praise of his successful stage run in John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son. “Basically, I really followed him, but I didn't need any kind of proof that he was perfect for the role. I just simply felt he would be perfect.”

As for Hammer, “I've been in love with Armie since I saw him in The Social Network. There is something special about his face that draws me to him very deeply. Every director is a voyeur. The possibility to stare at that image, and also to be able to penetrate the image of his physicality, to be in that position toward him is beautiful, deeply erotic. It’s something that only making a movie together allows you to do to another person. I wanted to explore that with him.”

His intuition about casting the duo paid off in more ways than he anticipated. Not only do Chalamet and Hammer deliver two of this year’s most profound, sophisticated and moving performances, they also operated as true collaborators. Guadagnino fondly remembers the day they had to capture the film’s most challenging shot in a town square, a key moment when Elio first opens up to Oliver and confesses his feelings. In a single take that expands and widens onscreen, we watch the duo as they approach a monument together and walk to its opposite sides while they continue to converse in a touching, cryptic fashion about their mutual attraction. Turns out the stunning shot was Armie Hammer’s idea. “We had five or six pages of dialogue. I was like, ‘Oh my god. How do we do this?’ Reverse angles and stuff. And then Armie said, ‘Why don't you do it in one shot?’ And I said, ‘One shot? Six pages of script? Okay! Let's start with blocking the scene: How do you come in, where do you go, where do you look around?’ After they acted the scene from the beginning to the end, I said, ‘I know what to do.’ We waited for two hours to get more tracks from Milan. Then we simply put it together and did it in an hour. So it's about collaboration. A great actor is not someone who goes into the trailer, waits for the shot and then goes back to the trailer. A great actor is someone who stays on set and becomes a filmmaker.”

“Dry, wet, very wet” was the direction Guadagnino used in two of the film’s key scenes with Stuhlbarg and Chalamet. Towards the end, Mr. Perlman delivers an immensely moving and profound monologue to his son Elio, accepting and loving him for who is and in a way allowing him to live his life comfortably in his own skin. His monologue grows in depth and feeling, as Stuhlbarg nails every note. “That speech is valuable in general, because it's about not denying your own identity and desires,” Guadagnino observes. “It's a wonderful way of transmitting knowledge, whether you have a gay son or a lesbian daughter, or bisexual, or whatever. It's not [only] about the sexual identity. It's more about empowering someone's truthfulness.”

He continues, “Stuhlbarg is such a gigantic actor. He prepared himself and was fantastic. I said to him at the beginning that I want Mr. Perlman to be very frothy and light, not like a typical academic person. When we shot the scene, I remember saying, ‘Let's make it dry, wet, very wet.’” He said the same to Chalamet, who gives an exceedingly complex performance in a single take during the end credits, after Elio hears about Oliver’s engagement to a woman. “I think Timothée grew with the filmmaking. That was the [penultimate] day of shooting. I didn't have to say so much. Just ‘dry, wet, very wet.’”

“The peach scene,” he chuckles when I eventually bring the conversation to the much celebrated and talked about sexual scene between Elio, Oliver and a peach. “Yes, the peach scene is infamous. Someone made a [peach] tattoo, I saw,” he laughs, stressing that he and his actors approached the scene in an intelligent but light and ironic manner, while not abandoning its seriousness. “I am not interested in a goliardic attitude on set. We weren’t giggling. And once we understood how to approach it, it was easy [as we were] very patient. I can't bet on anybody's sexuality,” Guadagnino reflects. “I learned in life that we are capable of so much that surprises ourselves. We are complex humans.”