Sensual simplicity is Call Me by Your Name’s swooning secret

New York — In the longest and most emotional close-up in Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino asked for three variations, one per take, from his young actor, Timothée Chalamet: Dry, humid and wet.

The Italian summer of Call Me By Your Name, set in 1983, is unchanging: Day-after-day of sunshine and languid bliss. But for the 17-year-old Elio (Chalamet), who’s awakening to the beauty and heartbreak of love, the weather is churning.

To capture it all, Guadagnino elected for simplicity. A single 35mm lens for the whole production. Minimal cuts. And one devastating close-up.

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“I shot this on film so if you listen closely, you will hear the sound of the camera whirling,” says Guadagnino. “I love it. Maybe I’m a bit of a perverted cineaste of the 20th century, but the sound of film running through the wheels of the camera is erotic to me.”

An intoxicating eroticism — of love, of cinema — runs deep in Call Me By Your Name. Since its unveiling at the Sundance Film Festival, Gaudagnino’s sensuous and insightful coming-of-age tale has been swooned over like few films this year. 

Call Me By Your Name is based on the novel by Andre Aciman and scripted by James Ivory, the 89-year-old filmmaker whose collaborations with Ismail Merchant are renown.

It’s about an intelligent, precocious young man (Elio can speak Italian, French and English, and plays a mean piano, as can Chalamet) living in a splendorous northern Italian villa with his academic parents (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar). When a 25-year-old graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), comes to stay with them, Elio finds himself drawn intractably toward Oliver.


The film may sound specific in its setting and sexuality, both of which are rendered lushly. (One scene with a juicy peach has already grown famous.) But the spell of Call Me By Your Name comes from its grasp of universal sensations — of new, uncertain feelings; of the nervous thrill of opening up yourself to another; of feeling your world expand.

“Regardless of your identity, your orientation or who you’re sitting next to in the theatre, when you watch two human beings so vulnerably fall in love with each other in a sweet, tender way, it’s almost impossible for you not to remember the first time you were in a situation like that,” says Hammer. “That’s one of the great unifying things about this film. Humans are humans and love is love.”

And if you’re going to make a movie about love, you might as well shoot it in the Italian summer. Guadagnino, the Italian filmmaker of I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, shifted the location slightly to his home turf, in Crema.

The project began with producers Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman, who obtained the book’s rights. They reached out to Ivory (Howards EndRemains of the Day) to executive produce, and later came to him with the suggestion that he and Guadagnino co-direct. But that proved an unappealing prospect to investors and insurance providers.

“It was decided, probably because I’m so ancient, I guess, that Luca should direct it by himself,” Ivory says, chuckling.

“We were disappointed by the market. When we realised that it would have been a teeny, teeny tiny movie in a very small amount of time, and that there was some interest in me doing it, he was very generous,” said Guadagnino. “He said, ‘I bless this project if you do it.’”


That makes Call Me By Your Name a unique fusion of two international filmmakers — one an acknowledged master of literary adaptation, the other an ascending maestro of sensory detail.

The movie’s other binary relationship was between the experienced Hammer and the newcomer Chalamet, who credits Hammer with providing him a “road map” for his budding career. They spoke at the Toronto International Film Festival with adulation about each other, boasting of their friendship and reminiscing about their halcyon shoot in Italy. Their days: Morning espressos, countryside bike rides, never-ending meals.

“I will carry the experience for the rest of my life,” said Hammer. “I’ve never been challenged or pushed as hard as this movie required me. It is so much about vulnerability and so much about opening yourself up and giving that to someone else, and having them receive and give back. It happens in every scene where these two interact. It’s what the process of making the film felt like.”

“It felt very fluid,” said Chalamet. “You almost forgot about the camera sometimes.”

Ivory’s script called for more nudity than is in the finished film. (Both stars had contract clauses prohibiting full frontal nudity.) And Ivory has sometimes sounded disappointed that Call Me By Your Name lacks a more explicit depiction of lovemaking between men.

“It seems to me there’s quite a bit of nudity. Maybe not as much as in some of my films, but it’s certainly there,” he says now.

Ivory, many of whose films such as the newly restored Maurice are considered landmarks in gay cinema, believes it’s simply “a cultural thing,” that American moviemaking shies away from sex in mainstream and even art-house movies.

But the essence of Call Me By Your Name is in its understanding of youth, one crystallised in an uncommonly self-aware monologue delivered with fatherly brilliance by Stuhlbarg late in the film. Hammer believes it should be required viewing for all parents-to-be.

“When you’re going to birthing classes and they’re not showing you that speech,” says Hammer, “you’re going to the wrong place.”

Call Me By Your Name opens in cinemas on Friday, 23 February. 

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