"No one wants Call Me by Your Name to become a Rocky movie"
André Aciman on the peach, the speech, and the fireplace
In this edition of The Review, André Aciman tracks Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) story to the end of Call Me By Your Name — and beyond — so a spoiler warning is in effect. Haven’t seen Call Me By Your Name? The film, directed by Luca Guadagnino and adapted for the screen by James Ivory, is now playing every day at TIFF Bell Lightbox. See it on the best screens in Toronto.
Luca Guadagnino captured something in my story I was always afraid was going to get lost. It’s the indecision, the ambivalence, the insecurity, and the dread of essentially telling someone that you like them — and even before you do that, you have to tell yourself.
In Call Me by Your Name, you immediately sense that the first thing between Oliver and Elio is avoidance. When you avoid someone, almost meticulously, it's because you're drawn to them. You may not even know why. When Oliver first touches Elio’s shoulder, Elio shirks him away. It's because he wants to be touched and he can’t show it to him. This is where desire first begins to percolate into something that will become unbearable. The more desire there is, the more there is to cultivate.
Indecision, ambiguity, and ambivalence are very hard to portray on screen; it’s much easier to do in prose. There are certain scenes in movies where you try to understand what the character is feeling, and in conveying that, a director usually tries to capture something that is unsaid and cannot be narrated. You have to see it on the character's face, and that is very hard to portray. For this reason, I'm a big fan of the films of Éric Rohmer. The characters are constantly talking, but there's a hidden discourse inflecting everything they say. It’s only by the way they speak to each other that you begin to suspect what is happening.
The peach scene. Four years ago, I was introduced to Tilda Swinton (star of Guadagnino's I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) at a dinner event. She said, "Oh — the peach scene." There was no screenplay then, but she had read the book and the first thing that impressed her was the peach scene. I think it's essential, probably because it's so shocking, but also, at the same time, because it is the most intimate moment between the two men.
In the film, as they struggle with each other — one wants to eat the peach, the other wants to grab it away — Elio says, "You're hurting me." Oliver responds, “Then let go,” and Elio breaks down and says, "I don't want you to go." I found Timothée’s eruption of tears extremely moving, and Luca’s film does this all the time. It’s always taking very physical, almost lusty moments and finding their emotional counterpoints right away.
In my book, Oliver eats the peach because, as he says: "I want every part of you. If you were going to die, I would want part of you to stay in my system.” In the film, Armie Hammer just sticks his finger in the peach and almost licks it. That is good enough for cinema.
The speech Michael Stuhlbarg delivers (as Elio's father, Mr. Perlman) is another sublime moment in the film. That scene was very easy for me to write. I wanted the father to surprise the boy and at the same time, surprise the audience by revealing that he knew about them the whole time. I didn’t want him to condemn their relationship, or force Elio to recant it. I wanted him to say, "It's gonna hurt, but don't kill it, don't pretend it never happened."
I used to get a lot of emails from people in their sixties and seventies who said this moment was extremely powerful for them. Their fathers had never gotten close to knowing enough about their sons to say this. It was a conversation that had been taken away from them their entire lives. I want any parent raising a gay child to be shown that scene because it shows how to go through that moment with fortitude, as opposed to prejudice and stupidity.
One day, Luca and I discussed over breakfast the possibilities of how to have a Call Me by Your Name sequel. He wants maybe more than one sequel because he wants to trace the growth of these two young men the way François Truffaut did with Antoine Doinel.
My book traces the history of these two young men for 20 more years. You would imagine that a film that does not do that would essentially cheat the story. But the story itself really ends at the end of that summer. It’s very strange for an author to say that — you're supposed to be very self-satisfied and say, “Why didn’t the director abide by my original ending?” — but with the fireplace scene, Luca had already achieved the same effect.
I remember asking him, “How are you going to shoot this?” He said: "Oh, we're gonna have a shot of Elio with tears in his eyes.” I thought, "Oh, my god. That sounds so maudlin." What he created, however, is a magnificent moment in the history of cinema. Everything Elio is ever going to remember is inscribed in those four minutes. Suddenly from nowhere, as we watch Elio's face, you begin to see his mother and the maid in the background setting the table. Then the titles appear and you realize, "Oh, wow. It's the end."
People constantly ask me what’s going to happen next — but no one wants Call Me by Your Name to become a Rocky movie, so you have to be careful. Yet I know there is more that has to happen between these two young men. They seek each other again and again and again and that's the beauty of the story.
Death in Venice It's very difficult to speak about desire in a film without thinking of Visconti’s Death in Venice. In this movie, you don't exactly know the nature of the desire is — you can guess, but it's not necessarily spelled out for you. I love when a film does that because it forces you to consider what you think is going on. You might even stifle it because you're embarrassed and that particular kind of mechanism for desire is extremely powerful.
In the Mood for Love Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is a pure Rohmer film done in Hong Kong. It's about a man and a woman who are basically attracted to each other but cannot seem to bring it about because there is a lot of inhibition. Even though they seek each other out, something stifles the relationship, and it's wonderfully done. Do they need to sleep with each other in order for you to be satisfied? Not necessarily. All that's important is when they go shopping for soup, the way they walk, and the music of Nat King Cole in the background.
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