Luca Guadagnino on Call Me by Your Name

I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino returns with Call Me by Your Name, one of the year's finest films, about the burgeoning romance between two young men over one Italian summer. We discuss love, adapting a beloved novel, and his Suspiria remake (kinda)

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 19 Oct 2017

“I think about the unconscious.” Luca Guadagnino tells us over the phone. “I think my gaze goes where my desire wants to go. I don’t rationalise technique upon which I make my own films. I always try to be in the situation that makes me the most comfortable.”

We’re chatting with the Italian director Luca Guadagnino – in Milan at the time of our call – about his latest film, Call Me by Your Name, based on the beloved 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman. The director is best known for features like I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, though his newest one doesn’t feature those films’ star, frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton. She’ll be back soon enough, however, as Guadagnino’s next movie is already in post-production: a remake of Dario Argento’s fantasy-horror classic Suspiria, led by Dakota Johnson and co-starring Swinton, with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke composing the score.

Guadagnino’s already got prior remake form, with A Bigger Splash having been one of the 1969 film La Piscine, and the prospect of a filmmaker behind a string of vibrant, erotically charged movies reimagining one of cinema’s most visually and aurally distinctive horror films makes this one of the more exciting remake prospects in a while. Unsurprisingly, though, Guadagnino’s a little tight-lipped on that movie for now: “Well, we are in quite an early stage. I’m very happy with the movie, I can tell you.”

Back to the project we can properly discuss, and what a film it is. This year’s big festival darling, Call Me by Your Name has been met with passionate raves since bowing at both Sundance and Berlin within quick succession.

Adapting the majority of Aciman’s novel, it’s a sensual tale that’s an ode to the ecstasy and torturous pain of first love, set in sun-kissed northern Italy in the summer of 1983. It reminds this writer of various European coming-of-age classics, particularly Maurice Pialat’s À Nos Amours (coincidentally released in 1983), a film to which Guadagnino admits a great debt: “Oh yeah, of course, that’s one of my favourite movies and you got it right. This is a sort of very earnest homage to that film.”

The idyllic summer break of 17-year-old American-Italian Elio (Timothée Chalamet, a revelation) mostly consists of transcribing and playing classical music, reading, and casually flirting with friend Marzia (Esther Garrel, daughter of director Phillippe Garrel). He lives in a 17th-century villa with his family, including his translator mother (Amira Casar), who’ve provided the precocious young man with a means to luxuriate in various forms of high culture.

Elio’s soon to be enamoured with a different subject, however. An all-American doctoral student, Oliver (Armie Hammer) comes to stay at the family palazzo as part of a six-week research engagement with Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of antiquities and Greco-Roman culture. Elio must surrender use of his usual bedroom to the guest, with Oliver slipping effortlessly into the intoxicating rhythm of the Italian summer – bike rides, dining alfresco, lots of swimming. Amid this setting and increased presence in each other’s company, Elio and Oliver both become consumed with awakening desire for one another and whether or not to act upon their feelings.

On that last point, there’s a scene in the film in which Elio’s mother translates a French romance where the hero must decide whether it is better to speak or to die, which relates to Elio’s own turmoil. Is it better to put oneself out there or suppress your feelings so as to avoid a certain form of pain, instead dying of longing, not knowing what could have been? We decide to ask Guadagnino of his own views on this question of love.

“I think,” he answers, “that there is a tendency of enjoying and indulging in the pleasures of ‘to die’ in longing, but definitely the act of speaking and finding a dialogue with the other [person] is the most powerful, brilliant, exciting revolutionary act. So, I would say that after the light indulgence in the act of longing, I would say to speak.”

Perhaps to accommodate the fluctuating reception quality of our call, Guadagnino keeps many of his answers short, though is audibly effusive when discussing his various collaborators on the film. “I would work with Armie Hammer in every kind of possible genre,” he says of his biggest name star. “I really, really love him. I think he’s a fantastic, fantastic actor.

“I think I had chemistry with them,” he continues on the subject of his actors. “So if I had chemistry with them, they had chemistry with one another, because it’s about making everybody feel embraced in the best possible way so that they can embrace one another.”

One particular collaborator elsewhere proved vital to making the film very different from its source material. Call Me by Your Name features new songs by American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, written specifically for the film. “I wanted to have a new voice,” Guadagnino says of Stevens. “The book is about Elio telling us the story of his life, so it’s a first-person, single-person account. And I wanted to make it into a more present and not so retrospective film. I thought narration would have been coming from a different perspective.

“So I wanted not a typical voiceover, but a personality who could, through a different way of expression, in this case the soundtrack, express a third point of view. And that’s why I invited this amazing artist that is Sufjan to contribute with his own voice; to give the movie another narrative as a narrator.”

Something else different from the book is a wealth of cultural signifiers peppered throughout the film. Most prominent is a recurring use of The Psychedelic Furs song Love My Way, which first plays at an outdoor disco as a dancing Oliver loses himself to the music, while Elio observes him from afar. Elsewhere, Elio wears a Talking Heads shirt for a good chunk of the film, while there are other period details like a Robert Mapplethorpe poster and discussion of the death of Luis Buñuel.

“The translation from book to film is something that has to deal with the imagery of the translator and also to the necessities of the building of a world,” the director tells us. “The book is more about the words; the movie is more about the images. For me it was really important to underline a kind of emotional nostalgia that I felt for a place in which I’d been in ’83, but to translate it into something present; not something retroactive and retrospective. And in my opinion, a guy, a boy like Elio at that moment of life, at that moment of history, would definitely be a Talking Heads fan. He would definitely have been given the [Mapplethorpe] poster by his parents. And he would listen to the songs that were a part of the moment in that generation. We wanted it to be really consistent with the idea of the present of that generation, which is my past, by the way.”

One final cultural reference informs discussion of the film’s emotional reach: “I don’t know if the intent was to be universal. There is a beautiful song by Prefab Sprout and the song goes ‘All the world loves lovers, all the world loves people in love.’ That is my position for this film. I wanted to make a movie about people in love, no matter who they love.”

Call Me by Your Name is released 27 Oct by Sony Pictures