Luca Guadagnino is an unapologetic hedonist. The Italian director films erotic fever dreams set in exquisite surroundings.
In his 2009 film I Am Love , Tilda Swinton leaves her husband and their privileged life in Milan for a man half her age. She’s a modern day Emma Bovary who finds sexual and spiritual liberation in a younger lover’s arms. Guadagnino then turned his attention to Ralph Fiennes’ volcanic emotions in 2005's A Bigger Splash. On a Mediterranean island, the director orchestrates two love triangles. Fiennes and Dakota Johnson star as the worst houseguests in cinematic history, responsible for a staggering amount of sexual aggression toward their unsuspecting hosts.
The houses, or, more accurately, the estates where these amatory adventures take place provoke feelings of envy and covetousness in the audience. These property owners and their companions dine al fresco, with the help of servants, usually poolside. In his latest film Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino continues to focus on opulent imagery -- with unrestrained devotion -- and on characters who can afford to indulge in pleasures of the flesh.
While attending this year’s Napa Valley Film Festival, the director spoke over the phone about this approach to filmmaking, saying, “I believe that the practice of utopia is what we need to be doing constantly in our life."
You can easily dismiss this belief with a dash of proletarian scorn -- the stories are just about rich people with enough leisure time to wallow in anguished love affairs. Or you can watch his movies with unguarded emotions, as utopian fantasies that are suffused with nostalgia.
Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is the subject of Call Me By Your Name. He lives with his parents outside of a small town in the Italian countryside. And yes, they have a pool. As aspirational fictions, these well-appointed homes are tantalizing yet out of reach for most ordinary mortals. Based on André Aciman's novel of the same name, the film is a record of Elio’s first explorations with his newly emergent sexuality. When Oliver (Armie Hammer), one of his father’s graduate students, shows up for a summer internship, Elio develops a mad crush.
Guadagnino’s camera orbits around Hammer the way the earth revolves around the sun. We see him through a burnished lens. He’s a golden-haired Apollo with tanned, bare legs that are perilously draped. The attraction between Elio and Oliver is mutual but halting and often frustrated.
According to the director, he wanted to show their courtship from the point of view of someone who is in the midst of his first love. "They try to understand one another, and they're confused, and Elio's confused," Guadagnino says. "It's more about, as Freud would say, connecting yourself to your desires and what happens in your id.”
This idealized, romantic theme can be traced directly back to the films of Merchant Ivory, in which passion triumphs over repression — A Room with a View (1985) being the supreme example. In that classic Merchant-Ivory film, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) resists George Emerson (Julian Sands) until she can’t. You’ll recognize the same gentility in Guadagnino's movie because James Ivory, Room's director, initially adapted the screenplay for Call Me By Your Name. He was also hired to direct the film. But by the time it went into production, the budget had shrunk. And, concurrently, Guadagnino’s stock as a director had risen.
“The script became the outcome of our collaboration," Guadagnino says. He points to his own influences, more ruminative filmmakers like Jean Renoir (A Day in the Country), Maurice Pialat (À nos amours) and Eric Rohmer (Pauline at the Beach). Despite all its lavish meals and idyllic summer scenery, Call Me By Your Name offers something psychologically substantial. Elio’s parents accept their son’s homosexuality quietly, without melodramatic reactions.
Guadagnino, along with a strong supporting performance by Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, provides an alternate vision of what accepting parents can look like. The director says, “I think we have the power of imagining things that can be radically different and what may feel for us is impossible, but eventually is really possible.”
Stuhlbarg, who was traveling with him in Napa, added, “If this performance, if this film can salve old wounds for anybody, or if it can present another eye-opening vision of what people might have gone through in their youth, all the better."
'Call Me By Your Name' opens Friday, Dec. 15 at San Francisco's Landmark Embarcadero and the AMC Kabuki.