Is there a sexier book than Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman’s 2007 paean to eros awoken during a sultry, sensuous Italian summer? “This novel is hot,” wrote Stacey D’Erasmo in the first line of her review for The New York Times, echoing the sentiments of the book’s legions of fans for whom it quickly became a touchstone of adolescent gay longing with a satisfying twist—one often denied in our coming-out narratives: Desire is rewarded; hunger is sated. Boy gets boy. In the novel’s most famous scene, boy also gets peach—a kind of dry run for what the narrator, Elio Perlman, fantasizes about doing with Oliver, a research assistant staying at his family’s summer villa on the Italian Riviera.
That scene, which plays out across several pages with potent intensity, almost didn’t make it into the novel. Aciman thought about cutting it, then left it to his editor to decide. Something similar happened after Luca Guadagnino, best known for exquisite meditations on passions both thwarted and unbridled in movies like I Am Love, signed on to direct the movie. “I was tempted to remove it from the script,” he confesses. “In the book, it is so strong and explicit that I thought it was a metaphor, something that couldn’t exist in real life.” Although he ultimately decided it would be coy to delete the scene, Guadagnino grappled with how to depict it. “I was struggling with the possibility that you can masturbate yourself with such a fruit,” he explains. “So I grabbed a peach and I tried, and I have to say—it works.” It wasn’t only Guadagnino who needed to understand the mechanics of making love to a piece of fruit. “I went to Timothée [Chalamet, who plays Elio], and said, ‘We shoot the scene, because I tried it and it worked.’ And he said, ‘I tried, too, and I already knew it worked.’ ”
Funny as the anecdote is, it also illuminates the way in which Guadagnino engages with his actors. After all, this isn’t American Pie, and the scene with the peach feels as naked and vulnerable as cinema gets, and as drenched in symbolism as a Renaissance painting. “I’ve never been so intimately involved with a director before,” says Armie Hammer, who plays Oliver, the all-American object of Elio’s fantasies. “Luca was able to look at me and completely undress me. He knew every single one of my insecurities, every time I needed to be pushed, and when I needed to be protected.” It was a rare experience for the actor, who had wanted to work with Guadagnino for many years. “I probably fell in love with Luca the same way Elio fell in love with [my character] Oliver,” he says. “I looked at him with amazement.” The feeling was mutual. “I fell in love with Armie when I saw him in The Social Network,” says Guadagnino, who has a buoyant, infectious energy. “And then I had the privilege of meeting him, and I fell in love again. And I’ve never recovered from falling in love with him.”
Coat: Brunello Cuccinelli, Henley: John Varvatos, Jeans: Tom Ford
Suffice to say, this is not how most directors typically talk, but then, working with Guadagnino is not like working with most directors. “It’s like stepping through the Looking Glass,” says producer Peter Spears, who optioned Aciman’s novel before it was published after seeing an early galley in 2007. “The guys came early and we were all living in this town in northern Italy, and Luca would cook for us each night,” he recalls. “You are not going to a set or a soundstage—you are literally living and breathing this.” Chalamet, taking a break from the set of Woody Allen's as-yet-untitled new movie, recalls weeks on location taking guitar and piano lessons and “soaking in the vibe of the town.”
Such proximity to each other, and to the specific environment of the movie, created a rare bond that carried into the film. Spears describes a sequestered world in which the usual artifice of a film set falls away to the point where the line between the actors and the characters they play becomes blurred and porous. For Hammer the challenge was its own reward. “So much of this movie is about stripping everything away and exposing yourself,” he says. “I grew up in conservative white America, where you just don’t talk about yourself, your desires, wanting to express your sensuality—it’s taboo. To be fully immersed in Luca’s world was just an incredible gift.”
It’s a gift for the audience, too. To borrow from D’Erasmo, this film is hot. Much of it takes place around a pool, and the camera is not bashful, lingering on the tuft of hair below Oliver’s neck or Elio’s lithe, glabrous body with the same tender pleasure with which it captures a sleepy town square in the golden light of a late summer’s day. The sumptuous cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom conjures heat, sun, skin, scent. As in the book, you hear the hum of the cicadas, smell the pine sap. Who wouldn’t fall in love in such an enchanted place?
“I think location is character,” says Guadagnino. “I really aim for portraying it in the most precise way.” As a result, the movie thrums with the nostalgic tug of time and place in keeping with the novel’s Proustian spirit, and its period, 1983. “Luca is without doubt the most epicurean individual I’ve ever met,” says Hammer. “He flows through the ether as if he wants to consume and make love to everything.” And, like the epicure he is, Guadagnino takes his time, allowing the intimacy to build gradually into a crescendo, swept along by Ravel’s deeply romantic “Une Barque sur L’Ocean,” and a set of lovely new songs by Sufjan Stevens. When, in a provincial town on the eve of a wrenching separation, the two men find themselves in a small bar dancing to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” you can be forgiven for feeling that you, too, had just relived the whole tumultuous experience of first love.
While true to its spirit, the sweetly giddy bar scene is not drawn from the book. Instead it’s a musical madeleine from Guadagnino’s own youth. “I’m not trying to make people weep, but I didn’t dance with an Armie Hammer,” he says. “I danced by myself in my bedroom.” There are movies, after all, and then there is real life. Yet, asked how difficult it was to be a young gay man in 1980s Italy, Guadagnino, who was raised in Ethiopia by his Algerian mother and Sicilian father before moving to Palermo, is nonchalant, almost contrary. “It wasn’t difficult at all,” he says. “I never had to do any coming out because I was always myself.” The third child of five, he says his family left him largely to his own devices. “I grew up worshipping artists who were fiercely and dangerously themselves—Truman Capote, Rainer Fassbinder—and with them it wasn’t about ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ It’s about punching you in the face because I am an individual and a wild card in my own self—I don’t belong to a repertoire of behavior that I need to stick with.” He was reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks at the age of 12, and its literary aestheticism continues to influence his work today.
Armie Hammer & Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (Courtesy of Sony Classics)
It may be Guadagnino’s punchiness that saves Call Me by Your Name from the compromises that a different director might have made. “I could have made this movie with much more money if I put an antagonist in the script,” he says. “Many financiers said to me that it needed someone who would contrast with Elio and Oliver, so that the force of love would triumph.” Luckily for us, he did not not succumb to that cliché. The film’s most quietly radical attitude is to present the family not as a locus for oppression but as the very opposite. In one deeply satisfying scene we get to see that Elio’s father has always known—and approved—of his son’s liaison. “Someone said to me, ‘Wow, Mr. Perlman is such a radical father,’ ” recalls Hammer. “I stopped them and said, ‘If his speech to his son about knowing yourself, and being OK with yourself because it doesn’t matter, is a radical position for a father, then may we all be radicalized.” For Guadagnino, Mr. Perlman epitomizes a maternal compassion, one shared with the novel’s female characters. “I like to think this is a movie about the family as a place of protection and evolution and transformation,” he says. “A place where you relieve your kids—you don’t oppress them by forcing them to stick to your own cultural rules.”
Much as we might wish all fathers to be like Mr. Perlman, the reality is that many are more like James Woods. Shortly after its premiere in Toronto in September, the Trump-supporting actor attacked the movie on Twitter, posting, “As they quietly chip away the last barriers of decency,” alongside the hashtag #NAMBLA, the acronym for the North American Man/Boy Love Association, which advocates pedophilia. After Hammer tweeted back, “Didn’t you date a 19-year-old when you were 60.......?”, the actor Amber Tamblyn weighed in with a killer tweet of her own: “James Woods tried to pick me and my friend up at a restaurant once,” she wrote. “He wanted to take us to Vegas. ‘I’m 16’ I said. ‘Even better’ he said.” Woods later responded to say that Tamblyn was a liar, and that sex with a 17-year-old was illegal. Quite apart from the fact that the age of sexual consent in Italy is 14 (16 if it’s with someone in a position of authority, like a teacher), the tweet served to illuminate the stubbornly puritanical lens through which many Americans view teenage sexuality as something to be repressed. The movie makes the opposite case. Hammer recalls a signature moment during the peach scene that might well serve as the film’s thesis. “Elio turns to Oliver and says, ‘I’m sick, aren’t I?’, and Oliver says, ‘You’re not sick. I wish everyone was as sick as you.’ ”
When Hammer was offered the role of Oliver, he demurred at first. “It seemed so subtle, so personal, and so real that I didn’t know if I could do that as an actor,” he says. “I didn’t know if I had it in me to give such a tender performance. It scared me.” Guadagnino was prepared for that. “He assuaged all my apprehensions by helping me to realize that fear and desire are part and parcel,” says Hammer, aware that his casting may confound audiences more familiar with his turns in brash blockbusters like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Lone Ranger. Although it’s not the first time he’s played a gay character—he was J. Edgar Hoover’s lover in Clint Eastwood’s 2011 biopic J. Edgar—Oliver is a more emotionally complex character than he’s used to. The change in tempo suits him. Earlier this year Hammer appeared in Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait, about the life of the artist Alberto Giacometti, and in early 2018 he will be seen in Hotel Mumbai, opposite Dev Patel, which focuses on the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. A new movie, Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, in which he plays the husband of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, starts filming shortly. “I think when I started having success in this business, largely as a result of The Social Network, people thought, Big, tall, handsome guy, let’s get him in front of a franchise, let’s make some big movies!, but it just didn’t pan out as everyone thought it would,” he says. “That ended up being a blessing in disguise, because I got to consciously shift gears after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and make these little movies that would push me. I hope this movie will lead to more of the same, and I hope people don’t necessarily associate me with the guy who wants to make big movies.”
Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (Courtesy of Sony Classics)
Of course, one reason small movies don’t become big movies is that they take artistic risks. Call Me by Your Name could have been a more chaste film, but also a very different one. “If we were super worried about that stuff, we’d have made a lot of changes in the script years earlier and probably got the money to make a much more inferior film,” notes Spears. Yet making the movie was not easy. After Spears secured the rights in 2007, the project idled in limbo, caught between the need to shoot in Italy during the summer and capricious schedules. Three sets of directors and writers were attached before Guadagnino took it on. “Almost every summer there was an incarnation of the movie that would come together in the winter, be on the runway by spring, and then inevitably something would happen and the whole thing would fall apart for another year,” recalls Spears.
That the movie was made at all may be something of a minor miracle, but that the book exists in the first place is a circumstance of accident, not design. Aciman had been grappling with a different story in 2005, and started writing Call Me by Your Name as a distraction that unfurled into a 250-page novel in the space of three months. “I wanted to be in a villa in Italy inspired by Monet’s paintings, and I decided to write about a house by the beach,” he recalls. “There’s an alley of pine, and a car comes. That was the beginning, and I wasn’t going to go beyond that, but one thing led to another.”
He elaborates, “A young man steps out of the car, and there’s a 17-year-old kid who is the son of the owner of the house. And that was it, really—I was not going to go any further than that. I was not going to write another book, but I got carried away. Occasionally, I’d think, OK, this is where we stop, it’s going to get too lascivious, but then I would continue.”
Aciman is straight, yet who can accuse this deeply lyrical writer of appropriating gay experience, given how well he writes about it? When, early in the book, Elio imagines Oliver entering his room and lying on top of him, Aciman takes the reader to the heart of gay sexual awakening: “The words that came to me as I pressed my eyes shut were, ‘This is like coming home, like coming home after 10 years away among Trojans and Lestrygonians, like coming home to a place where everyone is like you, where people know, they just know—coming home as when everything falls into place and you suddenly realize that for almost two decades all you’d been doing was fiddling with the wrong combination.”
Who, having been a queer adolescent, cannot relate to that thrill of self-recognition, or the desire to find your place among others like you? It’s a testament to the particular gift of Guadagnino that the soul of the novel has been so ravishingly transmitted to the screen. “The transposition is so direct and so real and persuasive that as the writer I found myself saying, ‘Wow, they’ve done better than the book,’ ”
It’s no coincidence that the script was written by James Ivory, who made his own contribution to the coming-out genre as the director of the 1987 movie Maurice, based on E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name. Forster only allowed Maurice to be published after his death, but what’s remarkable about the book is Forster’s insistence on a happy ending: Those outside of the closet fare better than those locked in. When it was published, many critics attacked it as unrealistic, but Forster’s optimism seems prescient now.
Jacket & T-shirt: Berluti
Despite the initial shame that Elio feels after consummating his desire for Oliver, we know that he, too, will flourish by embracing the fullness of his identity.
“This is a boy who feels attractive and does not feel that there is anything wrong with that,” says Aciman. “I didn’t want the parents to be difficult. I didn’t want him to have friends who would make fun of him.”
Like Moonlight, last year’s indie that roared, there is already Oscar buzz building around Call Me by Your Name. Although very different movies, they share a fascination with the enduring resonance of first love. “As Luca says about Moonlight, a piece of art arrives when we’re ready for it,” says Spears. “So maybe in some ways we were waiting for the time to be right for this movie. It’s just a story about two people who fall in love for the first time, without waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting something horrible to befall them, and a price to pay for loving authentically.”
For Hammer, the movie has already left its mark—on him. “I know that I will carry the experience of making this movie for the rest of my life,” he says. “I don’t want to say movies can change the world, but if we can change one person’s perspective, we can change that person’s world.”
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