The films of Italian director Luca Guadagnino are at once gorgeous, voyeuristic immersions in haute bourgeois life and deeply humanist excavations of the nature of desire and identity. With his latest film, Call Me by Your Name—an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel by the director and James Ivory—Guadagnino has continued to refine the sensibility evident in his lush dramas I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015), and proved himself to be a master stylist and storyteller. Set in the sun-dappled Lombardian countryside in the mideighties, this portrait of a brief but extraordinary romance between a young man and the graduate student who comes to stay with his family for the summer holiday is a stirring depiction of self-discovery and love’s ability to shake the foundations of our lives.
While he was in town with Call Me by Your Name at the New York Film Festival in October, Guadagnino stopped by our office to talk about inspirations, style, and dancing, among other things.
Call Me by Your Name is comprised of many different elements, from its dynamic love story to its exquisite use of light and texture. I’m curious if there were directors you looked to for inspiration when conceiving of the film, both aesthetically and in the way you hoped to capture performance.
I reflected on the lessons of people like Jean Renoir, Maurice Pialat, and Bernardo Bertolucci—three directors who, in a way, are completely in line with one another. With Renoir, you come away with a knowledge of human nature that is astonishing. He really delivers a sense of the camera being invisible, yet he also has a visual flair that is unmatched. Humanistic storytelling does not have to be shallow, as is often assumed in the post-indie generation in North America. Renoir was a formalist and was exploring what it meant to be the son of a great painter, how to understand reality from a visual perspective, and how the position of the camera can be the position of the painter.
Pialat was unforgiving and never shied away. He was relentless, almost to a degree of provocativeness that is unthinkable in contemporary cinema. Now it’s all about cutting edges and smoothing corners instead of creating an edge and fighting with the elements.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Bernardo and making a documentary portrait of him [Bertolucci on Bertolucci]. Something he said struck me: a movie is not just a representation of a script of characters. Often I think of what Renoir said about having to leave the door open to reality. Specifically with Bernardo, he believes that the camera is a tool through which the director investigates the deepest and most hidden recesses of the actor’s identity. For him, the movies are not just stories but also documentaries about his actors.
Like Renoir, you make the camera almost invisible in Call Me by Your Name, and it creates a feeling of intimacy.
I experimented with my DP, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and tried to have the medium be as unobtrusive as possible. We decided to shoot with only one camera, broken down to the bare bones of just one lens, and to shoot on film, as I always do. We tested many lenses and decided to go for the 35 mm, which was the closest to the human eye. All the usual tools were no longer there, so my focus was not on how to frame the shot but on what happens in front of the camera. The camera was like a person—the one lens was like one eye, not the multiple eyes you usually have when you shoot a film. The immediacy and the power of that were tremendous for me. I am more and more convinced that the more limits you give yourself, the better. Imagine if I could have zoomed in on one of Elio’s expressions or had the ability to create depth of field. I would have used that film grammar to deliver what I wanted instead of just allowing the characters’ behavior to unfold.
I love the way characters dance in your films and how the camera always observes them as though from the side of the room.
I was a very lonely boy, and I always put myself at the corner of the room when I was at parties. It’s my unwillingness to be at the center of things. But watching people dance is something I really enjoy.
Fashion is something that’s always played an important role in your storytelling. Can you tell me about how you craft such specific wardrobes for your characters?
Let’s go back to the golden age of classic cinema, in the forties, or even the modern cinema of the fifties and sixties. How many times do you find a film in which the wardrobe of an actor is made by a great designer? We know Balenciaga, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Armani—all these people were creating clothes for these films.
When I worked on I Am Love with the costume designer Antonella Cannarozzi, we drew on the work of Raf Simons, who was at Jil Sander at that time. Jil Sander is a brand that was, and still is, focused on the demeanor of the powerful woman and both showing and hiding where she belongs. I wanted to make a movie that wasn’t about the neurosis or beauty of the bourgeois but was actually about the opposite. So we had to indicate that through the wardrobe, and who better than Raf Simons—who started his career by designing punk clothing for young kids—to bring a sense of both constriction and rebellion to the lead character?
So inventing the world of the characters is clearly very important to you, but is there a moment in the process of making a film when you are happiest?
I would say during the editing, because that’s when I can write the movie with more freedom. I don’t believe that the script is the most important part of the process. If you lock your director into what is written on the page, yes, you have an amount of certainty, but it’s the unexpected that makes something great. In the editing room, you’re rewriting the movie, and you can finally get to a place where you have an order that includes the unexpected things that happen on set, not just what was in the writer’s mind.
Can you tell me about the reimagining of Suspiria that you’re working on?
I have three months until I finish it. It’s a very special film, and I’m proud of it. I wonder all the time how people will react to it, being that it is based on a masterpiece. I often find myself in the position of saying “Oh, it’s ridiculous!” when I hear stories that they want to remake a movie like 8½, so I don’t know if I’m going to be served the same dish. But I can say that my Suspiria is a very personal film; it’s like oxygen to me. When I saw the original movie thirty-two years ago, the emotion I felt was so strong, so mind-blowing, and so important to my upbringing. I wanted to investigate the experience I had watching that film.
Are there any recent films that have affected you deeply?
Hirokazu Kore-eda's After the Storm. I missed it when it came out, but it’s miraculous, beautiful filmmaking. The woman who plays the mother—the level of complexity and wisdom and knowledge of human life that she is able to convey is astonishing.
He’s a perfect director. For me, it’s so reassuring and moving to know that today we have a voice like his. I don’t believe that cinema today is not as good as it was; I just think you have to look for things.