Call Me By Your Name – A sensual and transcendent tale of first love

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Call Me By Your Name is the beautiful acknowledgment of how you change when you love someone positively.

Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s emotionally driven Call Me By Your Name is a film intended to sweep over an audience like sunshine. It vividly evokes the feeling of an Italian summer, filled with bike rides, midnight swims, music and art, luscious meals under the sun, and the heady awakening of a 17-year old’s first passion.

Based on the acclaimed first novel by André Aciman,  the screenplay was crafted by James Ivory,  a celebrated American writer/director who made 24 feature films over his 44-year partnership with the late Ismail Merchant, through their famed Merchant Ivory Productions that gave us a trio of English films, A Room With A View, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day.

It’s the summer of 1983 in the north of Italy, and Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian, spends his days in his family’s 17th century villa transcribing and playing classical music, reading, and flirting with his friend Marzi. One day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), a charming American scholar working on his doctorate, arrives as the annual summer intern tasked with helping Elio’s father. Amid the sun-drenched splendor of the setting, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will alter their lives forever.

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“I like to think that Call Me By Your Name closes a trilogy of films on desire, together with I am Love and A Bigger Splash,” says Guadagnino. “Where in the former ones desire was driving to possession, regret, contempt, need for a liberation, in Call Me By Your Name we wanted to explore an idyll of youth. Elio, Oliver and Marzia are entangled in the beautiful confusion of what once Truman Capote described when he said that “love, having no geography, knows no boundaries. The film is also my homage to the fathers of my life: my own father, and my cinematic ones: Renoir, Rivette, Rohmer, Bertolucci…”

“What links these three films is the revelation of desire,” he says. “Either a burst of desire for someone else or you discover you are the object of somebody else’s desire. In this movie, Elio realizes there is something to him he really doesn’t know how to handle but he wants to follow somehow.” While the pursuit of desire in the other movies precipitates unexpectedly dark events, its result in this film is more hopeful and profound.”

“I don’t want Call Me By Your Name to be perceived as a hyperintellectualized opus,” says Guadagnino, “but as a tender love story that affects an audience in an uplifting way. I want it to be like a box of chocolates.”

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Luca Guadagnino

Born in Palermo, Italy and raised in Ethiopia, where his father taught history and Italian, Guadagnino’s international outlook and insatiable appetite for creative expression were calibrated early. He graduated from Rome’s University La Sapienza with a degree in History and Critics of Cinema, and did his thesis on Jonathan Demme. He made his theater directing debut in 2006 with a production of Patrick Marber’s “Closer,” and his opera directing debut in 2011 with Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Teatro Filarmonico in Verona, Italy.

From Page To Screen

Novelist André Aciman, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature, wrote in a whirlwind three months.

“I was writing faster than I have ever written in my life,” says Aciman. “It was as if I was in love. The writing took me places I would normally have never dared to go. There are things in the book that I say, ‘I can’t believe I wrote this!’ But I did. It just kind of dictated itself to me.”

 

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André Aciman

When the book was published in early 2007, it was quickly heralded as a modern classic of the literature of first love, and praised for its stark eroticism (its New York Times review opened with “This novel is hot.”) and the deep emotional impact it had on its readers.

Two producers, Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman, read the novel independently, and in 2008 joined forces to produce it.

“I think the novel evokes the sensuality and sexuality and eroticism and anxiety of what a first love is like, in a way that very few other books have,” says Rosenman. While the book was embraced by the LGBT community and has become accepted as a landmark of gay literature, it has always transcended barriers. “It strikes a responsive chord in almost anyone who has read it about the idea of first love and the haunting of first love and the pain of first love, regardless of gender or sexuality,” says Spears.

As a longtime friend and admirer of writer/director/producer Luca Guadagnino, Spears reached out to him, but as he was busy with other projects, he could only commit to join them as producer, through his company, Frenesy Films. Years passed as Spears and Rosenman attempted to put the project together with various directors and casts.

In 2014, they brought in legendary writer/director James Ivory to pen a new screenplay and serve as additional producer. One change Ivory made to the novel was to refine the father’s profession.

“He was a classics scholar, but you can’t just put the camera on somebody thinking or writing,” says Ivory. “So I made him into an art historian/archeologist type.”

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James Ivory

The novel is a memory-piece (Aciman is a noted Proustian scholar), told from the perspective of Elio, but the filmmakers set it in the here and now. “We wanted to reflect the essence of the book, but that didn’t mean doing it literally the same way,” says Guadagnino. “We had to take some routes that were different.” While Ivory’s original script had a modest amount of voice-over narration, none ended up making it into the final film.

As each summer approached, there were new incarnations of the film that came close to being made, but if an actor or director’s schedule shifted, the producers didn’t have the luxury of moving to the fall or winter. “There was just one time every year that it could be shot, and if you missed that window, you had to wait a year to get back on the runway and wait for takeoff,” says Spears. Finally, after nine years, Guadagnino carved out a few months before he began shooting Suspiria, so that he could direct the film himself in the summer of 2016.

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Director Luca Guadagnino with actors Arnie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet

While the novel is set in Liguria, on the Italian Riviera, the Guadagnino moved the location away from the seaside to the town of Crema in Lombardy where he lives.

Knowing the landscape and the way of life as intimately as he did, he felt it illuminated the essence of the Perlman family, intellectuals who expose their son to the world of literature and music and art through summers in a peaceful idyllic setting. “The Perlmans are really immersed in country life, the very sensual feeling of being part of nature,” he says.

Shooting near his home added comfort and simplicity to the process of making the film, not just for himself—“I wanted to indulge in the luxury of sleeping in my own bed”—but for the entire production team.

As is typical in a Guadagnino film, the house became as important a character as all the other actors, brimming with the authentic sense of real life. “Every now and then something would appear from Luca’s own house,” says Spears. “A plate or a bowl, or something that he somehow knew gave the scene a little more verisimilitude and felt to him like: ‘This is the Perlman home.’” One alteration to the property for the film was Elio and Oliver’s little “swimming pool,” a recreation of a farm animal watering trough common to the area.

As the stage was being set in the Perlman house, the actors began arriving in Crema, where they got apartments, began preparing for their roles and getting to know each other.

Timothée Chalamet, who had the most to do, arrived five weeks early. “I jumped into Italian lessons for an hour and a half a day, piano lessons for an hour and a half a day, guitar lessons for an hour and a half a day and gym workouts three times a week,” says Chalamet.

While the actor had six years of piano experience and a year of guitar before making the film, he worked with Crema-based composer Roberto Solci to boost his performance to Elio’s virtuoso level of play. Although the New York-based actor spent his youthful summers at his grandmother’s house in Le Chambonsur-Lignon, France, and had a feeling for what European small town life was like, he knew that the 1980s Italian version would be different. He was able to make friends with a number of young people from Crema who didn’t know he was an actor, and looked to Guadagnino for guidance about the period.

While Chalamet is fluent in French and was able to understand Italian somewhat, he had no Italian language training before his arrival in Crema. “Along with the piano, speaking Italian was crucial for me because it was a native tongue for Elio and I wanted to get it down to what it would have been for him,” he says.

Hammer arrived shortly after, and Chalamet was one of the first people he met. “I heard somebody practicing piano, and they said, ‘Oh, that’s Timmy!’ and I said ‘I want to meet him!’”

The two actors became inseparable in the weeks leading up to shooting. “We rode bikes, we listened to music, we talked, we went to meals, we hung out in many of the same places you see us in the movie,” says Hammer. After shooting commenced, the two rehearsed their scenes every night before shooting. The intimacy and chemistry that became palpable on screen grew out of the closeness the two actors developed in real life.

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A large percentage of the story focuses on the myriad steps forward and backward between Elio and Oliver before their relationship finally becomes physical.

Stressing anticipation through an unhurried buildup is common in Guadagnino’s films. “I like a slow burn,” he says. Says Chalamet: “It’s the universally relatable game of cat and mouse and push and pull that occurs between people that are attracted to one another but have suspicions and insecurities about whether the other holds the same level of attraction. They also have trepidations because they aren’t in a time period or a location that is accepting or encouraging of them having an intimate relationship.”

For producer Spears, Guadagnino’s measured pace is key to the way the film engages the senses. “There’s an American tendency, whether it’s in movies or TV, to race to the finish line. But Luca slows the pace down and makes you experience everything—the smell, the sound, the touch, the taste. When you connect with all of those things, you’re really going to feel it and you’re not going to forget it.”

A good example of Guadagnino’s approach is a scene where Elio and Oliver stop for a drink of water while they are out biking. As this serves no obvious narrative purpose, it is the kind of sequence a different filmmaker might have cut. “This was one of our favorite scenes,” says editor and longtime Guadagnino collaborator Walter Fasano. “First, because it evoked the typical lounging and easy and lazy feeling of old summers in the 80s. And second, that particular moment reminded us of moments in Bertolucci’s “1900,” which was shot in the same geographical area. Obviously when you deal with these kind of things, you must be very careful not to be self-indulgent, because you can be. At the same time, when you rush, you are losing something.”

“Call Me By Your Name is the beautiful acknowledgment of how you change when you love someone positively,” says Guadagnino.

While his films are praised for their eroticism, Guadagnino doesn’t depict sexuality gratuitously. “Sex on screen can be the most boring thing to watch,” he says. “In general, if the lovemaking is a way to investigate behavior and how this behavior reflects the characters, then I’m interested. But if it’s only about the illustration of an act I’m not interested.”

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Says Chalamet: “When you first see Elio and Oliver kiss, and the first time they really make love, the shots play out for awhile. You see the awkwardness and the physical tension in a way where, if there were a million cuts, would be lost.” Says Hammer: “I think a lot of movie sex scenes are about: ‘What angles look best?’ But in this movie what you see are two people hungrily exploring each other’s bodies. And I think it feels organically like the first time you have a sexual experience with someone new: where there’s uncertainty, there’s that unknown, there’s all those things that you’re figuring out as you go.”

The famous peach scene from the book shows how eroticism is utilized in the film to illuminate the inner lives of the characters.

“What’s going on with Elio in that scene is a combination of that longing for Oliver and also the all too relatable phenomena of not knowing where to place your overabundant sexual energy when you’re 16, 17, 18,” says Chalamet.

“But when Oliver arrives, the weight of him leaving for what could be forever is hitting Elio for the first time, in addition to the shame and embarrassment of being caught in this almost feral act. I think the combination of those sensations proves to be tremendously overwhelming.” Elio’s conflicted emotions leads to conflict between the two of them when Oliver playfully tries to eat the peach.

“When Elio’s character becomes emotional, that’s the moment Oliver realizes a line has been crossed that he didn’t realize was there,” says Hammer. “Now, instead of being domineering, now is the time for him to slow down. This isn’t just about me, this has to be good for both of us, and it becomes a really sweet tender moment where they both end up on the same exact page.”

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It’s notable that while Call Me By Your Name is a literary adaptation, so much of it plays out wordlessly.

There were scenes with lots of text that were removed when Guadagnino felt that they were unnecessary. “I think is one of the most beautiful things about storytelling in general,” says Stuhlbarg, “is that the words are part of what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily what’s going on underneath. I think this film celebrates the underneath. A lot can be gleaned from a look. It may tell us everything about the scene we need to know.”

Even when Elio declares his love to Oliver he uses language that is indirect. “I wanted Elio’s confession to remain ambiguous so that he would have a reprieve in case he got rejected,” says Aciman.“I identify with the difficulty that Elliot was feeling. How do you speak this way and still keep you dignity intact?”

Elio’s predicament was evoked earlier by the story Annella read earlier from Marguerite de Navarre’s 16th Century The Heptaméron telling of a lovestruck knight and his “Is it better to speak or die?” dilemma. Says Chalamet: “I think Elio is sick of calculating and would rather speak up but it’s about the most daunting thing you can do to expose yourself to someone. I think you can make an argument both for and against in life and in the movie.”

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Says Hammer: “It’s not necessarily speak or die, it’s what happens for the rest of your life after that moment where you’re confronted with the option to speak or die. The death I think is largely metaphorical. If you don’t stand up and say this is what I feel, this is what I want, this is who I am, then maybe that part of you dies.”

One of the most luminous parts of the book and film is the tender conversation that Mr. Perlman has with Elio near the end of the film, where he offers his son unconditional love and support.

“Most gay people do not have that kind of father,” says producer Howard Rosenman. “The idea of this kind of man, loving and holding his child close to him and telling him to treasure the moment, is extraordinary. It’s almost like a fantasy, but it’s powerful and real because of the way Michael Stuhlbarg delivers it.”

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Says Spears: “I saw a meme somewhere, ‘Be the person you needed when you were younger.’ Something about that has stuck with me and I feel like Luca and I, in so many ways from the very beginning, have made the movie we needed when we were younger that wasn’t there.”

In fact, the character of Mr. Perlman is based on Aciman’s own father. “My father was a very open-minded person who had no inhibitions when it came to sexuality,” says Aciman. He was a man you could always have a conversation with about anything you wanted to discuss about sex. So I wasn’t going to write the usual kind of speech, like ‘everybody goes through this’ or ‘you should see a shrink,’ or the contentious father routine, because that’s not the father I knew. My father would have said exactly what the father does in the book and the movie.”

Says Chalamet: “What was cathartic and enlightening for me in doing the scene with Michael was the sensation that pain isn’t a bad thing. In fact pain needs to be nurtured and taken care of and if you ignore pain or in the words of Mr. Perlman, ‘try to rip it out,’ you’re going to rip out everything good that came with it. Obviously, there’s going to be disappointment and hurt, but in order to achieve the good again and to reflect on the good that did happen in a positive light down the road, you need to be gentle with yourself. Don’t kill the pain and all the good that came with it.”

“If you’re lucky enough to feel something deeply, even if it hurts, don’t push it away,” says Stuhlbarg. “What a waste to feel something beautiful and then to try to pretend like it didn’t happen.”