Don’t believe everything you hear about ’Call Me by Your Name’
By MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 14, 2017
Don’t believe what you might have heard about "Call Me by Your Name."
Adapted by screenwriter James Ivory from a 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, the sexy new film -- a coming-of-age story of first love that has already racked up multiple awards -- has been criticized in some quarters for its central relationship, a summer tryst between Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old man.
It is criticism that Italian director Luca Guadagnino, whose credits include "I Am Love" and "A Bigger Splash," feels misses the film’s larger point about the importance of an unexpected f-word: family. That theme is best embodied by Elio’s preternaturally tolerant father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who is likely to receive a best supporting actor nomination.
In a recent phone call from Italy, the 45-year-old filmmaker elaborated on the movie’s true meaning, why he doesn’t like acting and why he loves "The Lone Ranger."
The Washington Post: Among the Oscar front-runners, "Call Me by Your Name," which takes place in Italy in the 1980s, is notable for its lack of social engagement. Does it exist in a little bubble of escapism
A: That’s a great question, and it deserves a thoughtful answer. I’m a cinephile. One thing I have learned from the great Hollywood canon is that from many films that could be considered escapist, we can nevertheless take away a sense of transformation. Take, for example, Walt Disney’s (1940) "Pinocchio." That movie came out during a severe time period, when Europe was inflamed and America was just starting to understand how to intervene. Why is a movie about a puppet who becomes a real boy such a great ethical proposition? Because Disney was able to create forms that made our imagination vivid. There was no need to say "Hitler" out loud. I totally deny and refuse that "Call Me by Your Name" is a movie that takes place in a vacuum.
What is it about?
The most surprising thing for me is human behavior. I like our fragilities -- whether conscious or unconscious -- our weakness, our failures and triumphs. I’ve always been interested in telling stories about the ways we can both empower and crush one another. I have had always the privilege of working with fantastic performers who were not shy, and who were happy to jump from the rooftop with me and to dive deep into whatever was lying below.
In what way did they jump off the roof?
People can decide for themselves after they’ve seen the film, but ultimately by allowing the camera to observe the interior of their souls. I don’t like acting. They didn’t lie to the camera. The actors and the characters were blurred into one organism.
Chalamet had already been hired when you took over the direction from screenwriter James Ivory. But explain your decision to cast Hammer, for whom you’ve had a long-standing admiration, dating back to "The Lone Ranger." Some might say that’s not a great calling card.
They’re wrong. "The Lone Ranger" is a great, wonderful, buoyant, intoxicating old-fashioned film. Gore Verbinski is a great director. It was an unlucky movie. I think it’s a movie that will be rediscovered. Armie Hammer brings with him, of course, a great charm, but I also see in everything he does -- "J. Edgar," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," "The Social Network" -- one hundred things happening in his face at once. When I first met him, six years ago, I felt that there was something in him, a sort of inner turmoil in his own self, that could be a great force to dig out. I think I was right
There’s a rich and specific sense of place to all your films, expressed not just through landscape but also architecture. How important is that?
Going back to your first question: We don’t live in a bubble, we live in a space. We are who we are because of the relationship between us, the physical space we inhabit and the other persons in that space. I’m interested in that friction. I’m not interested in drama. In theater, you can have a great rendition of "Hamlet" on a bare stage with no props, just using the words of Shakespeare. In cinema, that’s not what you should try for.
In light of the current scandals about sexual harassment and sexual abuse of minors, how do you respond to the discomfort with your film’s central relationship?
The percentage of criticism that has come from those who have seen the film, related to what you just said, I would say is 1 percent. The best answer I can give is: Go and see the film, and judge for yourself whether the sexuality is uncomfortable. Having said that, there was a great review of the film by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker that said, in effect, that this movie is the antidote to the climate in which we are living, a climate in which power is a weapon used to crush other people and to exert the violence of your impulses. "Call Me by Your Name" is about consensual desire, discovery and a completely un-power-related relationship.
The bond between Elio and his father is key. Is their relationship more significant than the sexual one?
Absolutely, yes. Familial bonds are central to this film. This is a movie for families and about family. It’s about the transmission of knowledge, whether through actual conversation or unspoken behavior. In the movie, you see the way the parents cast their gaze upon this boy, the way they welcome Oliver into the house, the way other people come and go without knocking. When Elio starts wearing the Star of David around his neck, as an expression of his Jewishness, you see in the way his mother caresses his neck that she is, without saying anything, saying everything.
Your films are very beautiful, but you’ve said you despise beauty. What do you mean?
Think of the German architect Albert Speer, during the Nazi regime. His buildings were beautiful, but what were they signifiers of? I am interested in the beauty that lies in our actions. I’m thinking of the scene in which Elio is watching Oliver dancing. We are in a dingy club. It’s not a beautiful place. Elio is a normal-looking boy, in normal-looking clothes.
But isn’t Elio beautiful?
He becomes beautiful. You are mistaking youth for beauty. The transport of his desire for Oliver is so deep that you can see beyond the physicality of the actor, beyond his age and into the depth of the character. That’s the kind of beauty I’m interested in.
There’s a notorious scene in the film -- and in the book -- in which Elio uses a peach for sexual gratification. Do you have any special interest in the taboo?
I love the concept of the taboo, but I don’t think "Call Me by Your Name" is about that. I can talk to you for hours about the great canon of Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, who relentlessly investigated the taboo through "In the Realm of the Senses," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" or, tellingly, his last movie, "Taboo."
Your next film is a remake of the Italian horror classic "Suspiria." What did you mean when you described it as the opposite of "Call Me by Your Name"?
I can’t stress this enough: "Call Me by Your Name" is about family. "Suspiria" is about a terrible mother, in a psychoanalytical sense. In "Suspiria," we investigate the ultimate, terminal consequences of a terrible mother.