It must have been last September when I first heard that the Italian director Luca Guadagnino had filmed an adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name. I felt an immediate dread: that the film would not be as good as the novel; that it would be as good as the novel. Either way, viewing it was going to be an upsetting experience.
I have read Aciman's novel twice in the ten years since it has been published. I admired it for its surround-sound immersiveness and the author's rendering of the heated, volatile inner voice of its 17 year-old narrator, Elio. It is an intimate, brave text, soaked in emotion and sensation. But also, for quite personal reasons which are as much about my own first experience of love as much as the novel’s thematics, the story has always troubled me. It is something of a closed system among men, for one. Oliver doesn’t treat Elio very well in the end, and the novel’s female characters – bit players essentially – are easily discarded. But when is love ever without casualties?
I finally went to see it with my closest friend at my local cinema in east London. We sank into the Rio’s plush chairs on an incipiently wintry night in early November. The world that unfolded on screen was both familiar and changed. The Ligurian seaside location of the novel had been grafted inland, to rural Lombardy, with its pale palazzos and fluorescent green fields. Vimini, the precocious ten year-old neighbour who is dying of leukaemia, had been cut – an astute decision I thought, as she had been one of the few false notes in the novel, a bid to furnish Aciman’s self-confessed jeu d’esprit with gravitas, perhaps. Other elements had happily preserved: the sinister Anchise, a symbol of Elio’s distrust of the lower classes, with his bicycle workshop and the gasping, still-alive fish he delivers to the Perlman family, and Mafalda, the grumpy housekeeper who is the moral conscience of the household.
The performances are naturalistic, almost offhand, and totally convincing. But the miracle of the film is Timothée Chalamet as Elio. Nineteen at the time of shooting, Chalamet prowls through almost every shot of the film, thin as a stick insect, his pale body slowly gaining in confidence and shade as the film progresses. He grows, physically and emotionally, in front of our eyes, in a film which was shot over a month. By the end of the film Elio’s experience has been transposed to the viewer; we feel we have lived it ourselves. We behold a person thoroughly ransacked, transformed from the composed, slightly smug professor’s son we met in the opening frames.
‘Such a romantic film,’ my friend sighed beside me. ‘A utopia,’ he added as we unlocked our bikes outside the cinema. The word – utopia – and the film ricocheted around my mind for days afterwards. I was unsettled by the film in a way I was unable to define; it was not the same upset the novel had delivered. The reason was embedded somewhere in Chalamet’s performance, in his stealthy, almost invisible transformation – from someone I hadn’t much liked at the beginning, to a person who merited Oliver’s returned feelings, to finish as a complex creature worthy of our empathy, even pity. For the first time in a long time, possibly since when, as a teenager, I had watched a then 16 year-old Sandrine Bonnaire in Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amours while sitting on a plastic chair in a makeshift cinema above a furrier’s office in snowbound Fredericton, New Brunswick, an actor’s performance floated free from the film that contained them.
A couple of weeks later I read an interview with Hammer and Chalamet in The Observer. The article had a You Tube video link embedded to an interview and Q&A with Guadagnino, Chalamet and Hammer at the Toronto Film Festival last September. It was long, and I was busy. I thought, I’ll just watch a few minutes of this. An hour later I was still glued to the screen. The actors were more like than unlike their characters: Hammer ruthlessly confident, aided by his booming, golden voice, Chalamet sprite-like and unnervingly articulate for someone barely out of high school.
My previous incursions into You Tube have been of the ‘how to apply silicon grouting to your bathroom in three easy steps’ variety. A Dr Caligari’s cabinet opened. Brewed by algorithms, more and more videos appeared. Because the film was doing the festival circuit at the time, most of these were Q&As and accompanying press junkets. Over the autumn, these accelerated to red-carpet interviews, GQ party appearances and prime time talk shows. I listened to an hour-long radio interview with Guadagnino and watched multiplying clips of Chalamet and Hammer being interviewed by hyperactive presenters on floodlit platforms surrounded by camera cranes.
Chalamet and Hammer’s joint interviews were gripping. In their interview with Andrew Freund at the Toronto International Film Festival, Freund sets them the kind of timed word-association game beloved of these speed-dating-esque interview slots, demanding they say the first thing that comes into their minds on a prompt. ‘Love’ elicits ‘Armie’ from Chalamet, who instantly looks both delighted and aghast and adds Hammer’s wife’s name for good measure; at a further prompt Hammer gallantly responds, ‘Timmy.’ In one, Chalamet, whose father is French, corrects Hammer’s French pronunciation: ‘It’s laissez-faire,’ he says, ejecting perfect dipthongs. ‘Well here we say lay-ssey-fayre,’ Hammer responds, sliding into a Texan accent. Then they grin at each other, incandescent with intimacy.
No matter how many times Chalamet and Hammer deliver the same anecdotes – about their first rehearsal, when Guadagnino commanded them to kiss passionately only to leave them rolling around on the grass, about how their three week-long rehearsal period allowed them to build the convincing rapport we see on the screen – I do not get bored, or find them repetitive. I don’t think I have ever seen two people more ecstatic to be in each other’s company. Interviewers refer to this over and over as ‘chemistry’ - ‘You guys have such amazing chemistry’ - but it goes much deeper: their intimacy is intoxicating because it is forged in trust.
At night I sit in my study, bathed in my laptop’s aquarium light. I wonder if the rocketing numbers of YouTube viewers from Manila to Oslo who watch them recount once again their delirious summer of love making the film, are, like me, taking the measure of the rations of delight and trust that have been doled out in our own existences.
Classical Greek has four words for the experience English bundles into ‘love’: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē. To this primary list we can also add ludus and mania; the latter the Greeks considered an affliction and to be avoided at all costs. It’s worth lingering on their differing meanings. Agape is the abstract love we may feel for a deity. Philia translates as brotherly love. Ludus is a playful love felt between casual lovers and friends whose affection may stray into the territory of sex, but who remain immune to the dual hazard of eros and mania. Storgē is natural or instinctual affection, the kind of love we feel when we find someone with whom we get on 'like a house on fire', as the saying goes.
Of all the loves, eros is perhaps the most complex: it is erotic love, and mania the obsession it can ignite. While eros might be initially felt for a person, true eros requires distancing. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates argues that eros enables the person (technically the soul) to discover beauty, and through it the ideal of truth, and through this, spiritual transport. Desire is a mere vehicle for the moral project of transcendence. But when eros congeals into desire for the flesh, it leads to mania, Plato wrote. Madness ensues, and the benison of love is sunk in the misery of obsession.
You Tube, I discover, enables comments below its videos. Predictably some are of the ‘marry me and have my children’ – directed to Hammer or Chalamet or sometimes both – ilk. But most are heartfelt, wistful, even sombre. ‘These guys love and respect each other so much and they had such a fulfilling time making this film. I’m jealous.’; ‘Timothée is an extremely poised and intelligent person and deserves to go far.’; ‘I am completely captivated by these people. Obsessed. Send help!’; ‘I’ve never been interested in actors before but I could watch these guys all day.’ ‘I have never felt happier for two people in my life.’; ‘Timothée is so beautiful and intelligent it actually hurts.’ ‘I am shipping them big time,’ writes another. To ship (apparently a verb) means to promote as, or believe in, two actors as a couple. Where Chalamet and Hammer are concerned this fantasy proves equally robust among men and women.
I am startled by certain rueful confessions, usually by men. In response to a video clip to accompany Chalamet’s interview with Vogue (48,787 views) a - seemingly - male viewer writes, ‘I am in love with your body, your mind, your spirit.’ A viewer of one of Chalamet’s pre-Oscars appearances writes, ‘I am in a long-term and committed relationship, but I have completely lost interest in my partner because of Timothée.’ (Will the partner see this I wonder?)
Perhaps this avatar-authored angst is the modern confessional, where people – perhaps lonely, underutilised by life, their dreams un-enacted – occult themselves beyond Sphinx-like usernames to confess their innermost secrets in the hope that the subjects of these videos will see them and get in touch, or at least register, with an infinitesimal part of their brain (a phrase Chalamet uses when justifying his call-out to rap star Cardi B during his acceptance speech at the Gotham Film Festival awards), their existence. Maybe it’s the digital equivalent of the confessional box, offering catharsis to all faiths.
I never write one of these comments, but I share something with their stricken authors. I’ve never been so interested in two people I have never met, and likely will never meet. Watching them together becomes my only source of happiness in what turns out to be a difficult winter. What can be the harm, I think, as more and more clips from the film and the press tour appear on my You Tube feed. You have to take happiness where you can find it.
For a month in December and January I go to Africa for work. I don’t have wifi, and so I lose touch with the live archive of Armie and Timmy. Back in London after New Year, I catch up with what I’d missed: their pre-Christmas appearance on Ellen de Generes, for example, Ellen in a brown velveteen suit, looking frighteningly like Christopher Isherwood, saying something to Timothée along the lines of, ‘you’re hot!’ which caused him to drop his gaze to the floor, immediately colour, and mumble, ‘I’m not going to be able to look you in the eye now.’
Over the months, as the appearances accumulate, Chalamet emerges as a changeling. By turns he is level-headed, erratic, sincere, humble, poised, goofy, hyperactive. He folds himself deep into the guest chair only to rocket ramrod straight a couple of seconds later, as if he’d rather propel himself to a remote galaxy than be interrogated by an orange-hued Jimmy Kimmel. His euphoria at his sudden success is a force to behold. (‘He’s so happy it makes me sick,’ comments one viewer.) Watching him morph into another version of himself through the machine of fame and notoriety, I realise belatedly what arrested me so about his performance in the film: behind his milky youth is a latent yet fearsome ferocity. It is this dark note, along with a certain purity, which makes his rendition of Elio so compelling.
Hammer, for his part, speaks in many interviews of the powerful effect shooting the film had on him. He considered leaving the business because nothing could ever match the experience he had on set, under Guadagnino’s direction. After the shoot wrapped, he admits in several interviews that the time he has felt most himself – apart from time spent with his family – is when he was engaged to read the audiobook of the novel: ‘I got to live in that world again.’ One of the winners of the karmic lottery, with intelligence, good looks, clever, stunning wife and two children, descent from the American oil-ogarchy and a chain of Texan bakeries, Hammer hardly needs my charitable feelings. But my heart goes out to him, for the exile his transformation has visited upon him. Who does not recognise this dilemma, of having had an experience so fulfilling, so emotionally charged and transformative, that its afterlife haunts you? What we – the global Greek chorus tuned into the Armie & Timmy Channel – have been watching, then, is two people on separate but conjoined journeys of transformation, overseen by the wizard-like Guadagnino, who comes across in interviews as a person of feral intensity who would not let you get away with anything less than the truth.
Suspended above Hammer and Chalamet’s stories of personal transformation is a loftier narrative arc, or two, precisely, intertwined: of unanticipated success, and of our changing experience of intimacy and trust. Of the first, you can chart the film’s journey from art-house film of potential interest to fans of the novel to cultural phenomenon by these videos, even before the Oscar red carpet clips and close ups from the ceremony of Chalamet’s putti features hove into view. It really is extraordinary, because no-one expected it to happen. In one of the TIFF junket videos, Chalamet makes a ‘dab’ dance gesture and Hammer laughs. ‘Don’t worry, Dude, no-one’s going to see it.’ On another occasion, when Chalamet refers to the fact that their interviews will soon be over, Hammer grins at him with unabashed fondness and says, ‘There’ll always be You Tube.’
Mid-February in London. The long, cold winter, for the normally balmy British Isles, is at its nadir. Guadagnino and Chalamet arrive for the BAFTA awards the 18th. The film has been nominated for best adapted screenplay, best film and Chalamet for best performance in a leading role. Talk of a sequel has emerged, and perhaps of a suite of films which follow the lives of Oliver and Elio, taking a cue from the final section of Aciman’s novel, but which will go off piste from the text to deal with HIV/Aids, the 1990s, and beyond.
The ceremony is broadcast from the ovoid womb of the Royal Albert Hall, only a few kilmoetres from where I sit on my sofa. As I clutch my hot water bottle I catch Chalamet in the front row. His expression is poised, expectant, humble, resolute – he is able to cast harmony from such normally conflictual states of mind. As the broadcast drones on I consider again the question of why this film has captured so many peoples’ imagination.
There are clues to be found in the news as much as in the fine grain of our intimate lives. I stack them up in my mind as Joanna Lumley gamely delivers so-so one liners: we are trying to navigate a field of unprecedented political and sexual bad faith, most of us rendered complicit through our neoliberal angst and technological convenience. We could be nostalgic for an age before HIV and Grindr, but this does not explain the film’s appeal to its many very young fans, or to anyone who is not a ‘digital native’. Perhaps we are just sentimental dupes, easily enthralled by Lombardian peaches and soft-focus press interviews about Guadagnino’s family ethos on set and home cooking for cast and crew.
Utopia – my friend’s damning intonation has stayed with me, in the months since we saw the film. It is clear we are living through a crisis of rights and power. The #MeToo movement is an overdue bid for redistributive justice which has provoked an attendant crisis of masculinity. Of this, Chalamet and Hammer present two visions or archetypes. One fey, androgynous (a YouTuber comments: ‘that Timmy guy looks like a girl’), intellectual, urban, Goth-ish, and very young; the other a Ken doll incarnation of male perfection, older, emotionally experienced, the kind of guy who would never have to contemplate being date-less at the Prom. In fact, in High School they never would have looked at each other. And yet here they are, united in mutual adoration, a thrilling embodiment of the Greek flavour of love called storgē .
Underneath the near-miraculous success of their film is a symbolic story, what screenwriters refer to as the ‘deep emotional structure’. The film, and the evident love and trust between its actors and director, offers an antidote to an era when our emotional currency has become sex, lust and power, embodied by an American president who routinely denigrates women, by Weinstein and people trafficking and grooming rings. We are well aware that abuse and violence has multiplied in our society, driven by inequality and technology. Our social reservoirs of trust and optimism are shrinking. On an individual level we are increasingly applying the logic of neoliberalism – competitive market advantage, the curated, branded self – to one of the most delicate and intimate aspects of our intimate lives, the search for a soulmate.
My theory is that across generations many of us yearn for the emotional density the film portrays: a summer apart from any other, an era before Tinder and metrics, an unlikely but charged attraction which is actually reciprocated, a world where, in the words of Hammer, ‘nobody dies.’ But falling in love, for the first time or any time, is a kind of violence. There is a thin line between an enabling and a disabling experience. (I certainly couldn’t tell at the time which side I had landed on.) In the film, the violence of Oliver’s desertion of Elio is encapsulated in the much-admired three and a half minute single shot that closes the film. We never see the next moment, and the next, to discover how Elio puts himself back together, or if he does. That’s for the sequel, perhaps.
In the meantime the film’s afterlife has generated a new optimism, beyond the bounds of the story. Chalamet and Hammer’s have captivated so many people via their interview double-acts because of their intelligence, eloquence and personal rapport. They are a living testament to the reality, and therefore the possibility, of love. They simply love each other, albeit platonically, with both a small and a capital P. This leakage from fictional reality to real life comforts us.
The Oscars ceremony on March 4th , in which the film was awarded a Best Adapted Screenplay prize for James Ivory (to the chagrin of the film’s zealous fans – ‘Timmy was robbed’ etc.) served as a climax to the long press tour for the film. Soon afterwards it came to an end, no doubt to the relief of Guadagnino, Chalamet and Hammer, who have been talking about the film non-stop for over a year.
I’ve become used to their two dimensional company, just as I’ve become attached to the compelling story of a film made without much expectation (‘if I knew how the film was going to be received, I would have been shaking in every scene,’ Chalamet said in a recent podcast). They have kept me company through a gruelling winter, and reminded me that optimism and trust exist. In the process their voices have taken up residence in my mind, Hammer’s caramel tones, Chalamet’s Manhattanite drawl. If I wanted to, I could tune into the permanent archive of You Tube where they exist, uneraseable, ‘Charmie’, as they have been dubbed by fans, telling the story of Guadagnino’s mischievous first rehearsal with them over and over, accessible with a single click.
But here is the strange thing: what once caused me delight now elicits a searing, unabstract grief of a kind I have only ever felt for people I have actually known, in so-called real life. I dare not even open You Tube, I avoid the magazine photoshoots, their Twitter or Instagram feeds populated by ‘stans’ ravenous for ‘content’. In order to cope with the gradual realisation that I will never meet these people who have become digital companions, who have even colonised my dreams, I have adopted a resigned avoidance of their unanticipated success, their brutal beauty - even the mention of peaches (NB: this reference only makes sense if you have seen the film).
For me and possibly for hundreds of thousands of other people, Call Me By Your Name the film has re-traced the trajectory of a love affair, unrequited version – you start out charmed and intrigued, then, before you know it, your happiness is staked on the object of love, and they become necessary to your existence. Then comes the realisation that your feelings are not returned, that your happiness is false, you are as alone in the world as before, but now burdened by loss and impossibility. To protect yourself you shut yourself off from the person you have come to love, whose voice has settled inside you, but who now lives only in your dreams.