It is the dream of writers to have their novel become a smash-hit film. For André Aciman, author of the 2007 novel “Call Me by Your Name,” that dream has come true.
The exceptional, extraordinary, swoon-inducing screen version of Aciman’s dazzling love story between two young men is already a critical and commercial success. Oscar buzz and sold-out screenings have accompanied ecstatic reviews.
The film, which opens Dec. 22 at UA King of Prussia, AMC Voorhees and on both screens at the Ritz East, depicts the slow-burning — but scorchingly intense — relationship between Oliver, (Armie Hammer), a 20-something summer intern, and Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old, in Northern Italy, 1983.
It took 10 years for this film to get made, but gay filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash”) persevered.
“It was a call of duty,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s why and how I became the director. Clearly, I like the book and understood the book, but it wasn’t in the book that I found the answer to make the film, it was the necessity to make it.”
Novelist Aciman echoed this sentiment in a separate Skype interview.
“The wait became so long that I stopped believing it would ever happen. I wasn’t sure [it would] until I was on set. Then I was thrilled. It was an absolutely amazing experience.”
While Aciman is an accomplished writer, he decided not to work on the film’s screenplay. Gay filmmaker James Ivory (“Maurice”) adapted the novel into the screenplay. Ivory is currently the favorite to take home an Oscar for his work.
Aciman admitted that, while he might write a film one day, penning the screenplay to his novel and winning an Oscar was not a priority. However, he acknowledged the film’s strong points.
“The best scenes in the film are transcribed right out of the book. I’m very happy about this. It takes skill to distill 270 pages of a novel into an 80-90-page screenplay. You have to make decisions I am unable to make. They were smart not to ask me. This was in the best possible hands.
“Film is a different medium [than literature],” Aciman added. “Five-10 pages of prose gets distilled in two seconds, and without a voice-over, which is an easy out, it’s all displayed on the actors’ faces.”
The novel is written from Elio’s perspective, and is highly internalized. His obsessions and fantasies are difficult to depict on screen but Guadagnino mines incredible sexual tension between his romantic leads. This includes moments when Oliver touches Elio’s bare shoulder, or when Elio places his hand on Oliver’s crotch after boldly declaring his love for the older man.
But the magic of the film version of “Call Me by Your Name” is how it will make viewers ache along with Elio as this lush romance unfolds. Guadagnino emphasizes sensuality, not sexuality, and creates tremendous emotion.
“I am more interested in psychoanalysis, and the unconscious of people,” he said. “I want to delve into that. What is the measure of our desires, whatever the gender? My agenda is to tell the stories of my characters.”
The love between Elio and Oliver is the central focus of the film, and Aciman is particularly invested in how he presents it.
“I hate when people blandify [the film],” he said. “It’s about gay men. It forces you to accept the fact that there is love between men. The word ‘gay’ does not appear in the film. The word ‘love’ does not appear. I wanted the relationship to be as normal as possible — with none of the questions, or prejudices.”
“Call Me by Your Name” is also memorable for how it portrays the relationship between Elio and his father (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Aciman said he hopes “every single parent watches the father-son scene and says that they just learned something; that they call their son to come over and speak to them. Fathers should see this film, and they should be crying.”
“Mothers are easy,” he added.
For Guadagnino, the romance between Elio and Oliver was not autobiographical.
“My parents were not like Elio’s, and I wasn’t like Elio. The way I felt guided or misguided by them was less vocal. For instance, I was a kid who was directly and indirectly told that Italian culture was the most important thing. I am the third and last child in my family, which led me to be independent. I was really in my own mind and developing into the wonderment of what I wanted to do — become a filmmaker. I had a camera, I was very alone and had few friends. I didn’t join the dance floor.
“I never had a necessity to come out because I was always the person I wanted to be, and that was never interfered with,” Guadagnino added. “I was maybe privileged in this sense. Sometimes the level of censorship we suffer comes from within.”
What makes “Call Me by Your Name” so damn seductive is how Guadagnino immerses viewers in the lives of its characters. One moment where Oliver gives Elio a foot massage is far more erotic than the book and film’s most famous sex scene, which involves a peach.
Guadagnino defended his approach to the material, which has received some criticism for not making the sex scene more explicit.
“I agree that the manipulation of the feet is much more charged than the intercourse we could have visualized. That physical touch is not wasted.”
Guadagnino noted his passion for creating sensuous cinema.
“Cinema is a language where we try to immerse an audience in these stories. It can evoke warmth, coldness, fear, and I think that it is an experience I enjoy in the movies — being immersed in that. As a filmmaker, I try to encompass that. I do believe in the full experience of an emotional journey.”
Guadagnino recounted an email he received from a friend’s straight son who saw the film. The man said “Call Me by Your Name” reminded him of his first love.
“[He talked about] how much he suffered and withdrew and became more cold. He didn’t know how to deal with the damage. There is nothing more precious and beautiful than a reaction like that.”
The filmmaker grew more impassioned: “We are in an angry time where anger is the first step — hatred and suspicion toward the other. ‘Call Me’ is about compassion and complete surrender to the otherness of the other, and becoming better people. It plays as the counterpart to this hatred. I think it has been perceived as a soothing balm.”
Perhaps the film resonates with viewers because, although it is a poignant romantic drama, it has a lovely, lively feel. Guadagnino instructed Chalamet and Hammer “to not take the characters too seriously,” and this may be why their performances are so strong. As the filmmaker acknowledged, “Their commitment makes their characters blossom on screen.”
Guadagnino specifically wanted the actors to seem like they had known each other a long time, to feel as if they were family, not “actors acting as a family.”
Aciman himself and producer Peter Spears play gay couple Mounir and Isaac, respectively — whom other characters dub “Sonny and Cher.” The writer, who has no other film credits to his name, was amused by the opportunity.
“They told me I was going to be in the film. I had no idea what role it would be. They asked for my size — I had to get some clothing [fitted] — and they put me in that suit. Then I realized what I was supposed to play.
“The father [Michael Stuhlbarg] asks his son if Elio despises [Mounir and Isaac] because they are gay, or because they are ridiculous?” Aciman added. “I wanted to undo that straight man’s view of a gay couple. I ended up being the cliché!”
However, the response to “Call Me by Your Name” has been gratifying for everyone involved. Aciman, in particular, is still amazed.
“It’s uncanny to see something on screen that was once just an idea in my head.”