Call Me By Your Name: Eroticism on Screen–

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME evokes vividly one particular 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-boy’s first passion. When Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls for Oliver (Armie Hammer), the charismatic grad student staying at his parents’ villa in northern Italy, it sets in motion an experience that will linger with both of them forever. “I don’t want CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to be perceived as a hyper-intellectualized opus,” says director Luca 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.”

The film is based on the acclaimed first novel by André Aciman, which he 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.”

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

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 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 writer/director James Ivory (HOWARDS END) 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.”

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 script had some voice-over narration, none made it into the final film.

There were several incarnations of the film. “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 9 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.

The novel is set in Liguria, on the Italian Riviera, but Guadagnino moved the location from the seaside to the town of Crema in Lombardy where he lives. Knowing the landscape and the way of life intimately, 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. “They are like the land, like the trees, like the cows, like the grass, like the flowing water. They are part of everything. And they love and respect the tradition of the cycle of seasons.” Says Amira Casar, who plays Annella Perlman: “What I find so moving about the multilingual Perlmans, is that although they have a love of tradition and the past—they are also resolutely modern. While they are transmitting a strong taste of the classics to Elio in this Garden of Eden, at the same time they are pushing him out to go and experiment and live his life. Most parents tend to put a rein on their kids, and instead they’re saying, ‘Go out there! Live, life is a gift. Live it to the full.’ I think both Annella and her husband are very ahead of their time, extremely tolerant forward thinking, and permissive.”

Shooting near his home added comfort to the process of making the film–“I wanted to indulge in the luxury of sleeping in my own bed”—but for the entire team. Most of the film’s locations are in the immediate environs of Crema, and when they were further away, as in Lake Garda (the archeological site) and Bergamo (Elio and Oliver’s trip), only an hour and a half’s drive. The main location of the Perlman residence was an uninhabited family home in Moscazzano, a few minutes from Crema. Six weeks before production began, the filmmakers, including set decorator Violante Visconti (Luchino’s grandniece), gradually layered the place with the kind of furniture, objects, and decoration that might have been accumulated by the Perlman family over a lifetime. 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.

“There is a peace there that one who lives as I do in a metropolitan city rarely gets,” says Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Mr. Perlman. “It’s very much a walking place, because there are few, if any, cars that go riding around the city. It casts a very special spell.”

Guadagnino invited the cast and filmmakers into his home where he cooked elaborate meals and showed films. “He’s a great cook, Luca, and we’d share these delicious feasts,” says Casar. “It made us all closer. There can be inner fear and apprehension that we actors can have as we approach our roles, and Luca created a sensorial atmosphere of trust and joy between us, so that we really were able to tap into that intimacy, let sensations flow as we did our scenes.”

Says Hammer: “Luca was able to introduce an element of la dolce vita that doesn’t really exist in Italy anymore. Working on the movie, being with all these people who I honestly fell in love with, was incredibly analogous to the story of the movie for me. When I look back on it, it’s my love affair with making the movie.”

Fasano believes that placing the production near Guadagnino’s home was vital.  “He set up a situation in which he was very comfortable, so he really could spend all his time paying attention to the actors and making very simple camera movements,” says Fasano. “Because of that, I think an incredible spectrum of feelings and statements about love found their way to very mature expression in this film.”

Trilogy of Films about Desire

Guadagnino considers CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to be the last part of a trilogy of films begun by I AM LOVE and A BIGGER SPLASH. “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. “CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is the beautiful acknowledgment of how you change when you love someone positively,” says Guadagnino.

The Era

All three of the films in Guadagnino’s trilogy were set some years earlier than when they were made: I AM LOVE was shot in 2008 and is set in 2001; A BIGGER SPLASH was shot in 2014 and is set in 2011; and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME was shot in 2016 and is set in 1983.

“I’ve never made a historical film, but I like the idea of having a little distance of time to provide perspective,” says Guadagnino. “And in this case, it’s about a moment in Italian life that I have very strong memories for.” Says Aciman: “The fact that you know it takes place in ‘83 gives the film the touch of an elegy. It’s enough to inscribe the time factor that is so important to this character for the feeling that something is happening now that may never be repeated but may have lifelong consequences.”

Style through Limits
Guadagnino and his director of photography, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES), shot CALL ME BY YOUR NAME on film and with a single 35mm lens. “I like limits,” says Guadagnino. “I think it’s important to know the limits you are working within and to find the language through these limits. I gave myself the specific limit of one lens because I did not want technology to interfere with the emotional flow of the film. I wanted us to be concentrated on the story, on the characters, and on the flow of life.” Guadagnino had previously teamed with Mukdeeprom on Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s ANTONIA, which he produced. “Sayombhu has a specific sensitivity to nature and at the same time he’s a sculptor of light,” says Guadagnino. “I also admire his way of being as a person that brings such a wonderful calmness and spiritual serenity to the set.”
While the arrangement of the actors within the compositions was intended to be simple, it was always carefully considered. “We wanted to register the movement of the heart of these characters not only through their faces, but also through the way their bodies moved in space,” says Guadagnino. Says Casar: “Luca has a very precise idea of his choreography, but within that structure, he gives the actors immense freedom.” Once the camera was in place, Guadagnino encouraged the actors to improvise. “Tim was a miracle in terms of his unpredictability,” says Stuhlbarg. “He was different every time he did things. You never knew what was going to happen when he was doing stuff, and that was really fun to watch.”A good example of this is the film’s startling final shot. “There were three takes of that are all wildly different,” says Chalamet. “I’m so happy with the one Luca went with because it seems to me to be the most truthful one about everything Elio was going through at that moment.”
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.” 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.”

Famous Peach Scene
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 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.”

Music

Music is vital to Guadagnino’s films, but he normally doesn’t hire composers, and instead makes selections from already existing music tracks, most notably utilizing the work of contemporary American classical composer John Adams for the soundtrack of I AM LOVE. While the soundtrack for CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is a compilation of tracks by numerous musicians, Guadagnino decided he wanted to approach American singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens to create a song especially for the film. “An artist for whom I have enormous admiration is Sufjan. His voice is fantastic and angelic, and his lyrics are so sharp and deep and full of sorrow and beauty. The music is so haunting. All these elements were the ones I wanted to envision in the film.” While Guadagnino knew that Stevens had never collaborated on a movie before, he reached out. Stevens read the book, they had a long conversation, and the result was that he wrote not one, but two original songs for the film, “Mystery of Love” (heard during Elio and Oliver’s bus trip and visit to the waterfall) and “Visions of Gideon” (which plays over the credits). When Stevens’ songs arrived on set a few days before shooting began, Guadagnino invited Chalamet, Hammer and editor Fasano to listen to them at his house. “It was magic,” says Fasano. “A really wonderful moment.” Stevens also rearranged one of his previous songs, “Futile Devices.” “I think Sufjan’s songs add another voice to the film,” says Guadagnino. “They are kind of like a narration without a narration.”

The soundtrack for CALL ME BY YOUR NAME also includes tracks by John Adams (title sequence, discovery of the statue), as well as pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Satie, Ravel, and Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother,” which Timothée Chalamet performs live on guitar and piano. As the film is set in the 1980s, Guadagnino chose a lot of period Italian pop music (including Giorgio Moroder’s “Lay Lady Lay”) for the radio, but particularly spotlights Psychedelic Furs’ anthem “Love My Way,” which Oliver energetically dances to in the Crema disco and later, to a car radio on the streets of Bergamo. “I love the Psychedelic Furs,” says Guadagnino. “It’s kind of autobiographical, because I remember listening to that song when I was seventeen and being completely affected by it. I wanted to pay homage to myself then.”

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is a literary adaptation, but 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.”

When Elio declares his love to Oliver he uses indirect language. “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.”

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.”

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.”

Writer’s Father as Inspiration
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.”

 

 

 

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