Luca Guadagnino’s films are driven by narratives that lend themselves to beautification. His worlds are hermetically sealed spaces of bourgeois life, where people wear Dior and flit between Romantic languages with charming ease. But this aesthetic invocation always feels essential, and Guadagnino’s latest film, Call Me By Your Name, is perhaps his most successful entwinement of story and sensation. The film takes place over the course of a long, hot Lombardian summer in 1983, where we follow the unravelling desires of precocious teen Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and visiting research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer), as they navigate listless, sunlit days. We spoke to Guadagnino ahead of the film’s recent engagement at the Melbourne International Film Festival, at which he was also a guest.
This interview is published in partnership with Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2017 Critics Campus program. Call Me By Your Name screened at the festival this year.
André Aciman’s novel, upon which the film is based, is driven by a very nostalgic first-person narration. Since it’s such personal story, how did you approach translating this voice into film?
The Proustian exploration of the past works in the language of Aciman’s novel, but I didn’t want to explore nostalgia in this film. A Bigger Splash was about nostalgia. The obvious way to use the narration would be through voiceover, but I don’t think it would’ve been be a good idea if Elio had a voiceover, as it would have been a different film. I wanted to portray the desire as bursting and immediate — voiceover is connected to a sense of the past, and not the present.
So much of this desire is shown in the awkwardness — and beauty — of their body language.
Body language is so important. I spoke to Armie and Timmy about the physicality of the characters — Elio is 17, so he was born in 1966, and Oliver is 24, so 1959. We had to think about their sense of movement and how it would be affected by the events of the time they lived in. This is 1983, after the Vietnam War, but before a lot of modern technology. These characters have a different way of carrying themselves, not like people today.
I remember reading somewhere that you said your DP, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, treats light as character. Would you say you treat landscape in the same way?
Yes of course — wouldn’t you agree? Landscape is a character in all my films. We shot in a different part of Italy — the book is set in Liguria along the Mediterranean in northwest Italy, but we filmed in Lombardy, a region in northern Italy, where I live in Crema. Most of the light you see in the film is artificial because there was some bad weather before we started shooting, but it was so important that you could feel the presence of the light filling the space. To create the landscape as character, it’s important not to treat it as a postcard backdrop, but to give it a physicality. I also wanted to pay homage to my love for the region, and to show from the perspective of this movie something that has to do with my personal choices in life. I also think this place [Crema] is so integral and organic without being clichéd. I like that a lot.
I know that you had Armie and Timothée come in quite early —
Timmy came like a month and a half earlier, and Armie came a week before.
Which makes sense with their character progressions…
Exactly. My approach to character is very intuitive and it has to do with my rapport with the actors as well as the intelligence of what they’re saying. Those actors gave such physical performances.
Did you have any specific visual references for the film? I know you started off as a film critic.
I mean of course I tried to pay homage to my beloved French directors — Rivette, Rohmer, Renoir, Pialat, but also Bertolucci. Another important thing we did was very extensive research through family pictures. We went through a lot of families in Crema and we asked them if they could give us pictures of their family. We went through the albums and collected thousands and thousands of them. But for something like A Bigger Splash, it was different — we were looking more at character models for Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), character models for Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and so on.
I’m curious about how you paced the very deliberate, slow unfolding of their relationship. In I Am Love, I remember a scene where Antonio and Emma drive up to a restaurant on a hill —
That wasn’t a restaurant yet — it’s the scene where they go to Antonio’s secret orchard where he’s dreaming of starting his restaurant.
Yes, and the idea for the restaurant seemed to be that you drive up the hill, caught up in a sense of desire — in this case, the physical appetite for food — and the movement of driving all the way up to the top creates a delay. I feel like there’s the same sense of delay in this film.
Which is just what I think desire brings you, too. If you are desiring somebody, the delay is as important as the achievement. Otherwise, it’s the immediate fulfilment of desire in a way that’s almost like wiping off the strength of what you felt, through its consumption. For the pacing of this film, it’s what I call “slow burn”. Desire is slow burning. You have to think about adding little elements after little elements — it’s not about rushing into things, not about having Oliver arrive and everyone is thrown into a frenzy. It’s more about a growing suspicion — a growing suspicion that becomes a growing desire.
How did you think about the role of music in the film? There are some gorgeous songs by Sufjan Stevens.
The use of music is definitely integral to the sense of desire that comes out of the characters. For example, Elio plays music on the piano for Oliver and it’s a sort of a cat and mouse thing, like he’s teasing. As for Sufjan — we started thinking about him in February, before we started shooting. I wanted a sort of witness to Elio and Oliver’s story that came from a different aesthetic world, so music was a great contribution. I approached Sufjan and told him about the film and navigated him through the ideas that I had. It was quite a long process that ended up with him saying that he was happy to do not one song but two. But he also made us an arrangement of “Futile Devices” for piano, which was beautiful.
Your films are very visually beautiful, particular in their details, in a way one might call glamorous or opulent. For instance, Raf Simons designed all the clothes for Tilda in A Bigger Splash, and I believe he and Silvia Venturini Fendi were also involved in I Am Love. Do you think your films exist visually in a detached, beautified fantasy space?
I quite disagree [with that]. Regarding style specifically, it’s about the characters that the clothes are describing. In A Bigger Splash, Tilda plays a huge mega rock star who is in search of tranquillity. She’s in a crisis, and she tries to go back to what I call the invisible élan of the mother, so she wears these very elegant gowns that recall a past sense of elegance, a nostalgia. As for Raf Simons’ role — Raf was the creative director of Jil Sander during I Am Love, then at the house of Dior at the time of A Bigger Splash. His arrival [at Dior] was like the position of Tilda’s character Marianne, it was like being in a mummy phase — something new is just emerging. I liked how Raf’s role encompassed that, which is why my costume designer, Giulia [Piersanti], and I went for him. They were both part of a similar story. We weren’t just looking for beauty for the sake of beauty. Never.
And what about in Call Me By Your Name? Did these characters need that kind of behind-the-scenes aesthetic narrative?
We spoke about these characters for what they were — a kid, a young man, a professor, an Italian matron intellectual. I hope that I am not biased by my sense of aesthetic; I make films that look the way they look based on the necessity of the characterisation.