By Jim Slotek
Director Luca Guadagnino is not happy with the tendency of some to label his beautifully-wrought awards-season movie Call Me By Your Name a “gay romance.”
At a table with stars Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet during the Toronto International Film Festival, he takes purely Italian umbrage to my question about the period (early ‘80s) of his adaptation of Andre Aciman’s book about a teen’s affair with a twentysomething teaching assistant at his family’s Italian villa.
That period saw a mix of pride of coming-out, continued condemnation, and a “sweet spot” pre-AIDS in the lives of gay men. So, is the time important to the story?
“I don’t think this is a story of forbidden love,” Guadagnino says. “I respect any interpretation of my work. And I think that any movie lives in the eyes of who watches the movie and in way they watch. I don’t want to censor any perspective, but from MY perspective this is not a movie about forbidden love at all.
“First of all, I happen to be a person who enjoys the company of a man in my personal life. So there’s nothing forbidden about that to me. It’s the most normal and accessible thing that can happen to Armie and Timothee.”
As if anticipating my next question – about the characters of Elio and Oliver (Chalamet and Hammer) hiding their affair, from girlfriends and family – Guadagnino adds, “at the same time, I don’t think Elia and Oliver would live in the space in which they are living hiding. If they put themselves into an alley instead of in front of a large group of people staring at them, it’s because they savour very much their moments of intimacy.”
Though Elio and Oliver live in a world apparently without judgment, the movie does not. Several hours after our session, Hammer would get into a Twitter scuffle with actor James Woods. Woods retweeted a post about the seven-year gap between the characters (24-17) and added, “as they quietly chip away the last barriers of decency. #NAMBLA”
Hammer’s response, “Didn't you date a 19-year-old when you were 60…….?”
(Subsequent tweets that suggested the 19-year-old was “legal age” were followed by tweets by the likes of actress Amber Tamblyn, recounting being hit on by Woods when she was 16).
As we spoke, Hammer admitted some trepidation going in to the movie’s mildly-explicit love scenes.
“It’s funny, if you’re making a movie and you have an outside perspective on it, it probably looks completely ridiculous. People rushing around, people doing this and that, people yelling out terms and you have no idea what they mean.
“I remember whenever we had intimate scenes between us, whether they’d be in bed or wherever, we’d finish one of the takes, Luca called ‘Cut!,’ and I remember looking around. I wasn’t wearing any clothes, and was sort of feeling exposed. And I looked over at the sound guy, and he was holding the boom like usual, and I looked over and the script supervisor was looking over her book like usual. The focus puller was doing what he was doing.
“And it hit me, we’re all just doing our job. This is this scene, like that scene. I remember at one point we finished a scene and someone said, ‘Do you want a robe?’ And I said ‘No, I’m okay.’ ‘You sure’ I’m like ‘Yeah, I’m okay.’
“Any fear that was built up about it was all in my head. As soon it started, (the fear) all went away and (the scene) became this beautiful natural part of it.
“If anything, the intimacy that seemed harder or more challenging wasn’t the physically intimate stuff. It was the emotionally intimate stuff. It was being face to face with someone on camera, with the camera extremely close and feeling like you are in a place where you can be vulnerable.”
An easy, jokey vibe existed between the director and his stars on the promotion trail. Chalamet tended to defer to Guadagnino and Hammer (Hammer, along with his wife and daughter, helped Chalamet acclimatize to Los Angeles when he moved there to shoot another movie.
Chalamet is asked a boiler-plate question of whether Northern Italy was an attraction in accepting the role.
“He was there for the food,” Hammer jokes.
“And the girls,” Guadagnino says.
Chalamet takes the jibes and says, “In another project, the opportunity to shoot in Italy would be the biggest reason to do something. But on this, it was probably the smallest piece. It was the opportunity to work with Luca, because I had seen (his 2009 film) I Am Love. It was the opportunity to work with Armie. For people of my generation, The Social Network was a really formative film.”
“And it was an awesome surprise when he said Sufjan Stevens had made music for the film. For anybody my age, or any age, he’s a brilliant musician. When we were shooting the last scene, we had it playing while we did it.”
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
A fable-like romance between two young men in Northern Italy where everyone lives in villas and speaks four languages, Call Me By Your Name could not happen in the world most of us know. And this is a great part of its charm.
A truly escapist romantic fantasy, the movie, directed by Luca Guadagnino and adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame) from the novel by André Aciman, is as languorous as its surroundings, awash in the romance of its setting long before things get serious between its protagonists.
In films like I Am Love, director Guadagnino – a child of a working-class family himself - has reveled in presenting wealthy, comfortable characters living the good life. One such character is Elio (Timothée Chalamet), an eclectic 17-year-old whose pastimes include his books, classical music and the occasional tryst with his friend-with-benefits Marzia (Esther Garrel). The son of a professor of Classical Culture (Michael Stuhlbarg), he spends each summer in a Northern Italian villa in a state of apparent ennui, “waiting for summer to end.”
Enter “the usurper.” Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a 24-year-old student who’s been invited to stay with the family and assist the father’s research. A throwback to when Europeans considered Americans brash-but-cool, he carries himself with an easy grace and confuses his formal-English-speaking hosts with Americanisms like, “Later” for goodbye.
Elio’s annoyance with the American is chipped away in reluctant bits, sumptuously filmed scene by sumptuously filmed scene. Unlike most movie romances, there are no external obstacles to their inevitable bittersweet affair, just each other’s initial resistance. Both play at romance with women, none of whom really seem to hold any of this against them.
And Timothee’s parents? Dad understands and explains his wholehearted approval with a final act soliloquy about love that has been spoken by no father ever. And yet, in the world where this magical connection occurs, it makes total sense.
Call Me By Your Name. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by James Ivory. Starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Opens Friday December 15 in Toronto and Vancouver.