The love and politics of Luca Guadagnino
With Call Me by Your Name, the Italian filmmaker set out to tell a simple love story. But on its road to cinematic canonization, the romantic drama has faced controversy both reductive and nuanced
Sitting in a hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival last September doing a string of interviews to promote the coming-of-age romance Call Me by Your Name, the Italian director Luca Guadagnino said: "I wanted to make a movie that was small, unobtrusive and simple."You may understand what he means – tightly focused on a blossoming love affair, Call Me by Your Name is mainly set in an Italian villa and its immediate environs during a few weeks in the summer of 1983 – but today, the irony of that observation is even heavier than it was in September. The film has been rapturously received by critics and its Oscar buzz has been building steadily since it was released in the United States in time for American Thanksgiving, but Call Me by Your Name has also been continually entangled in various social controversies. And those debates are now further complicated by the heightened sensitivity toward any hint of sexual exploitation following the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey scandals.
When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, two critical camps rapidly formed. Call Me by Your Name is the story of how the 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls hard for his professor father's handsome American graduate student, the 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), and one immediate response was to see this as a powerfully universal story about young love. The other camp hotly replied that calling the film universal was an attempt to sidestep a distinctly gay story, and that the film's power lay in its refreshing approach to homosexual love. For his part, Guadagnino has swatted away any attempt to turn the film into a political statement.
"I think the intimacy that these two boys develop … has nothing to do with the history of the LGBTQ liberation politics and civil rights," he said. "It has to do with the capacity of exploration of your intimate self, it has to do with id." His tendency, then, has been to side with those who celebrate the universality of the story: "I think it is specific because it is Elio and Oliver, but it is universal because they have to speak the truth of what they feel to one and other, [and] that can be said to any kind of couple."
Still, a tug of war over the film's gay credentials has raged on. When the film was released in Britain last month, distributor Sony was roundly mocked for a social-media post that used an image of Chalamet not with Hammer but with a female co-star, Esther Garrel, alongside an enthusiastic media quote about the film's intense romance. In the film, Elio also has a truncated relationship with the teenage girl played by Garrel, who ultimately forgives him for going off with Oliver, but the choice of image seemed a clear attempt to straight-wash the movie. Sony hastily deleted the post.
Meanwhile, veteran filmmaker James Ivory, who co-produced the project and wrote the script, bemoaned its lack of explicit nudity in an October interview with Variety in which he blamed the lead actors' uptight contracts precluding full-frontal nude scenes.
Guadagnino rebutted the notion that contracts stood in his way, repeating that he wasn't interested in depicting the mechanics of sex.
"It is one of the big changes I made in the script because in the script it is all precisely depicted, how they have sex, but I wasn't interested in that at all," he said during the TIFF interview. "I was trying to represent this invisible thing that is intimacy. How do you describe the moment in which someone smells your neck? … That is more deep and profound and extreme than seeing someone making love to you. Actual sex between the two characters would have been a mechanical representation; it would have not been about them. … [I] hope we made that felt by the experience of the movie, that you are with them."
All of this fits with Guadagnino's desire to place the film in a very precise location and time – and yet outside of history and politics. "I wanted to make a movie that could be in the canon of the idyll, of that genre," he said. "I just did not want the movie to be invested with the prosaic brutality of chronicles and history."
Specifically, the movie is not interested in chronicling the AIDS crisis. The 2007 novel by André Aciman on which the film is based sets the action in 1988 and includes a passage where Oliver and Elio have delicately checked on each other's HIV status, asking "the tactful health question" before they have sex. Guadagnino, however, moves the action back five years to an almost pre-AIDS era – and a few hundred kilometres north from the Italian Riviera to his own home territory in Lombardy. Those changes are for personal reasons, he said, as he discussed his almost autobiographical affinity for Elio.
"I am a bit younger than Elio; he is 17 in '83, I was 12. But I remember 1983, I remember '88. I thought '83, there was something more untouched about Italy and about me. I searched for things that I liked, that were part of that time, the music for example," he said, referring to a soundtrack that includes such 1980s hits as Love My Way by the Psychedelic Furs.
To many contemporary viewers, the difference between 1983 and 1988 will seem insignificant; what has been happening since the film was released in the United States, however, shows how difficult it is to live outside 2017.
The larger controversy that continues to threaten Call Me by Your Name and its inevitable Oscar campaign is the age gap between the two characters. The novel is entirely narrated by the teenage Elio, telling an almost fantastical story of how his lustful crush on the older Oliver eventually becomes a genuine relationship. Like a latter-day Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, he mistakes Oliver's aloofness for contempt but finally is so desperately physically attracted he finds the courage to confess his love. Similarly, in the film, Elio appears in, or at least witnesses, every scene and is portrayed as the instigator of the relationship that Oliver initially resists as wrong.
Perhaps predictably, given the deep political divide in the United States, the complexities of the relationship in the film have been rapidly drawn into a simplistic debate about adult exploitation of teens, with the notoriously reactionary actor James Woods criticizing the age gap on Twitter and then right-wing columnist Ann Coulter chiming in. ( Hammer swiftly exposed Woods's hypocrisy by asking him if he had not dated a 19-year-old when he was 60, a reference to two relationships the 70-year-old actor has had with younger women.) Their accusations of indecency, like those of an online petition against Sony organized by a Christian group that says the film glamourizes pedophilia, make it clear these critics have not seen it.
Much more quietly, however, some viewers and critics do express discomfort with the scenes juxtaposing the visibly teenage Elio (Chalamet was 21 when the film was shooting, but looks younger) with the obviously adult Oliver (Hammer was 30 during shooting) and question whether their love should be idealized. The book, an almost Proustian recollection of the summer told from 20 years' distance, offers a more complicated reading of the relationship than the film, which only has the space to portray a heartbreaking affair in which Oliver seems to hold all the cards.
In interviews, both Hammer and Chalamet have been at great pains to stress that the two characters are – and are portrayed as – consenting adults free of exploitative power over each other, and, as the film builds toward the Oscars, you can expect more attempts to end the debate about whether the on-screen relationship is healthy or balanced. Guadagnino is not addressing the subject, and the film's Canadian distributor, Mongrel Media, dismissed questions about how it might be seen in the current social context, in which the dark side of a youth-worshipping culture have been so horribly exposed. "Criminal and predatory behaviour have nothing to do with a movie about two consenting and of-age adults," the company said in an e-mail.
What Guadagnino has been talking about, increasingly, is the possibility of a sequel.
"The material at the end of the book, 40 pages, it is ripe for more stories about Elio and Oliver and Mr. Perlman [Elio's father]," he said in September, referring to scenes where the two men meet up again 20 years later. And the director went yet further in a recent interview with Screen Daily in Britain; he speculated on a series shot at different ages in the manner of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy and suggested provocatively, "I don't think Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man."
To judge from the ecstatic fan embrace of the film's same-sex narrative on social media, that direction is unlikely to be popular: A heterosexual sequel to Call Me by Your Name could be more controversial still.
Call Me by Your Name opens Dec. 15 in Toronto and Vancouver before expanding to other Canadian cities.