Based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name is a queer coming-of-age love story that’s as languorous and seductive as its North Italian setting. Directed by This Is Love and A Bigger Splash’s Luca Guadagnino, the film follows Elio as he struggles to navigate first-time feelings of lust, longing and same-sex desire brought on by the arrival of his father’s new research assistant, Oliver. Though he is, at times, frustratingly unapproachable – the 17 year-old protagonist slips between English, French and Italian with ostentatious ease, killing time on his family’s sprawling country palazzo swimming, cycling and transcribing music – Elio’s journey is one of the most profoundly authentic, deeply moving stories ever told on screen.
In many ways, Aciman’s story and Guadagnino’s deft adaptation mirror John Edward Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner – both share the same languid pace and rich, romantic detail. The timeline of the film isn’t punctuated by plot shaping events or bombastic revelations, rather it lets the characters and their relationships mature slowly over time, creating connections that are intricate, cleverly nuanced and vividly real. Not only do you become invested in Elio’s story of self-discovery as if you’d known him your whole life; his excitement, trepidation, attachments and occasionally capricious behaviour speak to an adolescent awakening that is both intimately queer, and universally compelling.
Call Me By Your Name is not a straight-forward coming-out narrative, nor is it a film about adversity, outcasts or illness, but it shouldn’t be misunderstood as having transcended ‘the same-sex dynamic of its central couple.’ It can and will be admired by audiences regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, but its refusal to fit the formats traditionally assigned to queer cinema doesn’t mean it's a universal love story. Rather, it’s the film’s detail, thoughtfulness and unfiltered evocation of the agony and ecstasy of first love that make it universally appealing, just as its refusal to be pigeonholed makes it an important addition to the queer canon. It tells of a life-changing awakening, whilst also capturing an important story about identity, jealousy and affirmation.
Ahead of the film’s release nationwide later this week, we sat down with Guadagnino to find out how he first came across the novel, his method for adapting it and why the emotional heart of the film is more important than its erotic episodes.
Could you tell me how you first came across Aciman’s novel?
I was given the novel in 2008 by Peter Spears the producer, the originator for the movie along with Howard Rosenman. The book is set in Italy but doesn’t give a specific place, so they wanted me to read it and give them an indication of where I thought it was set. I read it, loved it and gave them my opinion.
What was is about the book that struck you?
I found it incredibly beautiful in terms of the writing. The way in which Aciman was able to depict the movements of the heart and the soul of his characters was really affecting. It’s an extraordinary book – I read it as if I were reading it for my own pleasure – but it didn’t ring any bells or remind me of my past at all. I didn’t think of the book as a narrative medium to be translated into a film until much later. Only then did I think, let’s make sure that we make this book look great on screen, restoring the spirit without being literal.
The film ends earlier than Aciman’s novel...
If you see the movie and you know the book you make the match yourself. For me it’s very difficult to explain the process on which things are made into another medium, the process is very difficult and very intimate. When you make a book into a movie you have to go through a process of translation, so that what you do and what you write is the essence of the book; it’s not, the letter of it. The book ends 40 pages in the future, and I finish the movie with an image which, in a way, makes the audience understand that they’re seeing someone thinking of the future. I wanted to be in the present, not the past or the future. That’s how I interpret my task as a director.
Do you think it’s a sad story?
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s melancholic, I think life is melancholic. Life is a constant dance between the present and the past in expectation of the future. There is trepidation, there is joy, there is sorrow, there are a lot of elements in life that come together, sometimes in the same moment. Do you define life by one characteristic, do you think life is sad or joyful? No, it’s a mixture of both. The characters fulfil their desires, they’re honest with one another and they learn from one another. Yes of course they separate, but that’s what life is like.
Is Marzia’s character particularly sympathetic?
Lovers are cruel, and Elio is cruel to Marzia because he can only be bound to what is desired. Marzia is very wise, because she understands that wholeheartedly. She has the capacity to love Elio entirely. Elio comes to understand the power of this young girl, so that he and her become a couple forever. Whatever the meaning of couple is, whether it’s a friends couple, lover couple, I don’t know. They will be together forever, as they promise to one another.
The relationship between Elio and his father is also incredibly moving…
It’s a very eloquent scene in which Mr Perlman approaches the son with a very deep degree of intimacy and tells him where the lesson of his life has come from. It was beautiful to see Chalamet and Stuhlbarg act that scene.
Is it a universal love story? Or is it specific to the queer community in some way?
I’ll reply to you by quoting the title of a great Prefab Sprout song – “All the world loves lovers, and the world loves people in love.”
The film focuses intently on emotional relationships, as opposed to physical ones. What prompted you to make that decision?
Well because I think the level of intimacy displayed on screen between Elio and Oliver is so deep that for me, the moment of them love making is not to do with their behaviour anymore. It’s the seduction, the approach, the honesty in their mutual search for one another that is interesting for me. Once that is accomplished, it’s just about how much time they’re going to have together, but the love making wouldn’t have given us any more insight into their behaviour, more than what we already have. It would have been gratuitous.