‘Why do people want to see other people’s penises?’
Italian director Luca Guadagnino's new film, ‘Call Me by Your Name’, is surprisingly coy despite its notorious peach-masturbation scene
Luca Guadagnino shows off his Jamie Reid/Valentino top at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Luca Guadagnino is in chipper form as he bounces across a reception suite at a Soho hotel. The director’s newest film, Call Me by Your Name, received a tearful 10-minute standing ovation at the New York Film Festival and, on the night before we meet, a glowing reception at the London Film Festival.
The Oscar-tipped film stars Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, and has won rapturous applause for its swooning romance, its lush Lombardy tableaux, and an already notorious scene wherein one character masturbates with a peach.
Guadagnino initially considered the peach scene a little too ripe. But having tested the technique out for himself, peach love found its way into the final cut. Oh yes, he did.
In almost every other respect, the film, based on the erotically charged novel of the same name by André Aciman, is less than explicit. Indeed, it has proven rather coy for some tastes. Writing in Jezebel, Rich Juzwiak marvelled that an openly gay filmmaker could produce a work so defined by sexual modesty and averted gaze.
Imagine if Rock Hudson was not cast as a love interest? I love those movies and I love and believe in the romance between him and his leading ladies
“Whatever you do you have complaints,” says Guadagnino with a shrug. “The truth of the matter is I had absolute control and I made the movie the way I wanted. There’s a great song by Prefab Sprout that says: ‘All the world loves lovers/All the world loves people in love.’ It does not say: all the world loves lovers’ cocks and all the world loves people’s cocks in love. Why do people want to see other people’s penises?”
It’s odd to hear the creator of such cerebral, sensual contemporary classics as I Am Love and A Bigger Splash argue against erotica in cinema. In responding, Guadagnino references the approach of Nagisa Oshima with his explicit film In the Realm of the Senses, which he calls a masterpiece. “[Oshima] was entering into a world in which the fascist, paternalistic order of the Japanese mentality had to be broken. He was exploring those themes of Eros and Thanatos. So when the two lovers shut themselves in the rice paper room, Oshima has to show you every single thing. To take a hammer to the symbolic order. But in our film, the characters are free and individualistic, not boxed in this way.”
Other critics have questioned the casting of Hammer and Chalamet over openly gay actors. Guadagnino looks bemused by the suggestion.
“This is a jarring question. Are you going to have a serial killer playing a serial killer? Are you going to cast only astronauts in Apollo 13? The idea that you have to cast only someone who has a certain set of skills, and worse, a certain gender identity in any role: that’s oppressive to me.
“And by the way, I don’t ask my cast: are you gay or not? Yes, Armie is married and he’s wonderful husband and father. But who knows where his desires lie? I’m not going to be the one to question him. Imagine if Rock Hudson was not cast as a love interest? I love those movies and I love and believe in the romance between him and his leading ladies.”
Guadagnino describes Call Me by Your Name as the final instalment in his desire trilogy. It certainly fits snugly alongside these other films, and yet he almost didn’t direct it. In 2008, Guadagnino was lined up by the producers as the first choice director, but he was busy. In 2014, octogenarian James Ivory (the acclaimed filmmaker behind A Room with a View, Howards End and the 1987 landmark gay drama Maurice) came on board to write the screenplay. Last year, Guadagnino finally assumed the director’s chair. Why did he take so long to say yes?
“It was too much me. I don’t know. I think it’s important to challenge yourself, not to indulge. I think there was probably an element of resistance.”
Luca Guadagnino was born in Palermo, to a Sicilian father and an Algerian mother. He spent much of his childhood in Ethiopia, where his father taught, and where young Luca quickly developed an appetite for cinema.
I resist the idea of the muse completely. It sounds so passive. Like an individual who is there to inspire the active creator who is usually male
“I know exactly what seeded it. When I saw Lawrence of Arabia at the age of five, then Apocalypse Now at the age of eight, then Bertolucci’s and Dario Argento’s films at the age of 12. Also, Hitchcock’s Psycho. I always liked to watch extreme films, not films for entertainment. Even now, I find myself too often ahead of the movies I’m watching. They want you to feel ahead of them. They want you to feel reassured. I don’t want to feel reassured.”
His next project is a remake of Dario Argento’s trippy 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, which he shot back-to-back with Call Me by Your Name. It must have been odd going from a predominantly male project to entirely female one. Does it require different parts of the directing brain?
“I will resist the complete answer. It’s maybe too personal. I would say that with women, there is a camaraderie between me and them. There is no kind of emotional friction: it’s just open arms and hugs. I think with men, somehow desire adds itself into the scenario. Filmmaking is a place with boundaries. But that still can get in the way.”
Suspiria will mark the filmmaker’s second collaboration with Dakota Johnson. The new film will also star Tilda Swinton, who has collaborated with Guadagnino on The Protagonists, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash. He’s reluctant to frame either woman as a muse.
“I resist the idea of the muse completely. It sounds so passive. Like an individual who is there to inspire the active creator who is usually male. I don’t like that idea.”
Suspiria is a dream come true for Guadagnino, who has wanted to make a horror film since he was a kid. “I think of horror movie in the context of Freud’s unheimlich: the uncanny cannot be separated from the familiar. They go hand in hand. And for me, horror is the best vehicle to display the psychology of who we are as people. It is the truest idea of us.”
Call Me by Your Name is in cinemas from Friday October 27th