A few months ago Luca Guadagnino, the Italian director of I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and his latest film, Call Me By Your Name, was in Australia answering questions in a packed theatre in Melbourne. Someone in the audience commented that Armie Hammer, the star of Guadagnino’s new movie, oozes sexuality. Guadagnino responded that, earlier that day, a journalist had asked him about the same thing.
I’d posed the question to Guadagnino because Hammer, playing love interest Oliver, appeared to be such a seething monolith of raw and masculine sensuality that I wondered how he’d harnessed it for the shoot.
“I didn’t resist,” Guadagnino responded. “As a filmmaker, I just went for it.”
All of Call Me By Your Name just goes for it. The best word for the film is hot. I don’t mean in a sexual sense, although there’s plenty of that, too. I’m talking about the overheated emotion of adolescent love boiling over during an Italian summer. It’s lush and passionate, sentimental and nostalgic, and intensely moving.
It’s 1983. Precocious, bright teenager Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is wiling away a summer with his parents in the Italian countryside when his father’s protege Oliver (Hammer) arrives. Oliver’s a decade older, beautiful and magnetic. While Elio’s father, an archeologist, dredges the ocean for remnants of forgotten civilizations, Elio and Oliver form a bond, which becomes a romance. "Call me by your name and I will call you by mine,” Oliver says to Elio as they become inseparable.
It’s not his story, but it’s still close to Guadagnino’s heart. In adapting American writer André Aciman’s novel, he moved the time period slightly, to 1983, and set the film in Liguria, close to where he grew up, to better soak it in the atmosphere of his own coming of age.
This isn’t the first time Guadagnino has used someone else’s work as a blueprint for something very much his own. His 2015 film A Bigger Splash was based on the 1969 Alain Delon film La Piscine (The Swimming Pool), but Guadagnino changed pretty much everything and ran wild with the possibilities. This is no different.
“Originality is overrated,” he says. “Every story has been told. All the possible intertwinements of narrative. What’s important is how you tell it.
“I think adapting pre-existing material gives you more control. Otherwise you can be enamoured with your own story and miss the point of filmmaking, which is translating.”
It certainly feels personal. The main characters are all Americans abroad, New World migrants dancing in the ancient towns and crumbling villas of the Mediterranean. Guadagnino is an outsider in Italy too. His mother is Algerian, and he grew up in Ethiopia.
“But it’s not a crumbling world,” he says. “It’s solidly standing through time. I would say Manhattan is far more crumbling than any of our towns in Italy.”
I saw the ancient statues dragged from the ocean in the film as crumbling counterpoints to beautiful young bodies dancing in empty streets. Guadagnino disagrees. Those sculptures embody, “in their perfection”, the deflection of time.
“It’s mirroring the perfection of youth,” he says.
The film is full of youthful vigour. The romance is euphoric and dangerous, and unfolds naturally, free from dramatic, artificial plotting. Guadagnino wanted to avoid narrative cliche and tell an honest love story.
“There were a lot of debates around the script,” he says. “About the fact that there was no conflict in the story I wanted to tell. Nobody tries to stop this romance. Everyone said: ‘You must put an antagonist in this’. I resisted.”
He feels it’s a cliche that you go through your coming of age against all odds. “I grew up facing my desires, having doubts, but I was never stopped by anyone.”
There’s enough emotional material without adding unnecessary action.
“Love is extreme,” he says. “It turns you into a hypersensitive organism. Everything is amplified. The only danger is that it ends.”
Guadagnino’s next project is a remake of Dario Argento’s expressionistic ’70s horror masterpiece Suspiria.
It seems like a big leap, to go from romances such as I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name to a full-blooded horror film. But the latter’s ethos of “amplify everything” is something the director learnt from a steady diet of horror cinema when he was young.
“I felt this unhinged freedom,” he says. “A great horror movie gives you a relentless, uncompromising emotional experience. It goes into the id of a viewer and tries to fuck with it. That’s what I want to do, even if it’s not a horror movie. I want to give a very strong emotional journey to my audience.
“All my childhood daydreams about being a director were all about making horror films. I’ve wanted to remake Suspiria for 32 years. It’s the most personal and the most radically intimate movie I could have done.”
Call Me By Your Name is in cinemas on December 26.