As winter descends, the long-awaited theatrical release of Luca Guadagnino’s tender romance Call Me By Your Name feels perfectly timed. It’s the third consecutive outing in which the sun-kissed vistas of his native Northern Italy serve as the backdrop for one of Guadagnino’s explorations of beauty, pleasure and love. Like I Am Love and A Bigger Splash before it, Call Me by Your Name is a swooning portrait of two people in relentless pursuit of their desires, consequences be damned.
They are the precocious 17-ear-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the elegant 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), whose paths cross when Oliver spends the summer at the family’s Italian villa to help Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) with his research. What begins as a subtle and enticing pas de deux quickly evolves into something far more devastating, as Elio and Oliver realize their mutual attraction. What emerges is an irresistible coming-of-age story about the exuberance and the turmoil of first love.
If you follow this sort of thing, you’ll know that the awards drum has been beating loudly for CMBYN ever since its rapturous Sundance premiere ten months ago. Those who have seen it have unanimously declared it an instant classic and a certified Oscar frontrunner. When I spoke to Guadagnino at the Toronto Film Festival in September, he seemed at once overwhelmed by the response and ready for it, as though he’s been preparing for this moment his entire life. Here is Guadagnino on growing up in Italy, his upcoming Suspiria remake and why he thinks such specific love story has resonated with so many people.
It’s early, but your movie is already being hailed as one of the best of the year. Were you expecting this film to resonate the way it has?
No. I take nothing for granted. I’m ready for the highest disappointment as a person. I’m very proud of what I do and I have an intuition that what I do is good when I do it. But on the other hand, I really surrender to the unexpected. Then something like the reception that we got for this movie happens and I feel elevated.
What is it about Elio and Oliver’s story that’s struck such a deep emotional chord with people?
I don’t know if it’s the story. I think it’s about the possibility that we have to mirror oneself into the unbiased and uncynical generosity of Elio, Oliver, Mr. Perlman and all these characters. I think people feel connected to the fact that they are really going for their own emotions.
How much of a role does their environment play? Could a romance like theirs happen anywhere other than that part of Italy during that time period?
I think a love story in this room would be quite different than a love story in the Italian countryside. But I like that it’s both specific and universal. Japanese artists are wonderful in finding the universal in the partial. As a person I like to think of the part from the whole.
What is it about that part of Italy that’s so conducive to romance? Is there a joie de vivre that’s unique?
I don’t know if it’s a joie de vivre. I like the scenery because it’s calm and it seems to be ancient and continuously overflowing.
What were the formative moments for you growing up in that part of the world?
I was very lonely. I was reading a lot. I am the third of three siblings and I was always the one that wasn’t opressed by the care of my parents. I made whatever I wanted and I was always the guy at the back of the room, staring.
Was friendship something that you valued growing up?
Very much. I identified very much with nerds. I was collecting friends on the fringes of society.
Armie Hammer has said that you’re one of the most sensual people he’s ever met and that if you could, you would make love to everything around you. Where does this passion come from? It’s an interesting position because I really want to make love to everything I meet and I make it clear to the other person in front of me. But I also have the great gift of being able to arrive to a point. I like the world of sublimation and making movies is a way to sublimate your desire. I think a director should desire.
It feels like Timothée Chalamet is on the cusp of greatness. Is he the next big thing? What did you see in him?
I don’t like to think of the “next big thing.” That’s more for an agent to think about. All I knew was that he was intelligent, feverish and committed to do this movie in a way that few people would have been. He’s a bit of a genius, if you ask me.
Your films are so rich with beauty to the point that it feels fetishistic. What is your relationship with beauty?
Beauty is subjective. But I’m always scared of beauty as an absolute, or beauty as a canon, because that has led us to tragedies in history. Take the Nazis. The concept of beauty was integral to the Nazi ideology.
Do you ever worry that because your films often depict a certain elite class of people, some audiences might feel alienated?
This is contentious. Movies are dreams. Do you know how the Chinese describe cinema? It’s electric shadows, which means it’s a dream. It’s an electric dream.
But a film like Good Time is a very visceral and brutal depiction of a completely different milieu.
But that’s the dream of Robert Pattinson being a demented mobster. That’s their dream. Don’t come to me and say it’s a movie about a slice of society. It’s the Safdie Brothers’ version of their beautiful dream.
I’m very excited that you’re remaking Suspiria.
Can I show you the logo? You’re only the second person to see it. Do you like it?
Very much so. Are you excited to make a horror movie?
I’ve always wanted to make horror movies. I want to make war movies, too. To me, they’re the pure essence of cinema. Dunkirk is essential cinema at work. Christopher Nolan is a director of pure cinema so it’s no surprise that he made such a beautiful war movie.
Obviously there’s a lot of Oscar buzz for your film. Following the success of Moonlight, are you encouraged that these tender love stories between men are becoming more widely accepted?
In my life I love men, in the physical sense, so how can I think of that as a radical thing?
But what about what mainstream audiences think?
I’m the mainstream audience. I watch mainstream films all the time. I think audiences are more intelligent than marketing people think. Studios were born as the enterprises of moguls—singular people running the show. They became conglomerates of boards and executives. Louis B. Mayer could really decide for himself whether or not to take on a challenge from his perspective. Now it’s a bit more difficult and that leads to decisions that can be described as coy. But also, the Academy is part of the industry and the Best Picture last year was a movie with a $1 million budget, directed by a third-time director—an African American. It’s an African American story and it’s also a story about love between two people who don’t know how to speak that love, and yet it won the Best Picture. That tells you how much we build in our minds fences that are not there.