It must have taken a long time to find this house; it seems an almost impossible need to find a house with two bedrooms that share so many doors between them. Then again, maybe the house came first and the film-makers followed its cues.
In director Luca Guadagnino’s new film Call me by your Name a maturing teenager, Elio, and visiting American academic, Oliver, spend six weeks discovering an intense and difficult love in the summertime rural retreat of Elio’s incredulously progressive parents. I say incredulously because their characterisation is almost unrealistic in its one-dimensionality. The lack of parental drama in this potentially controversial situation seems to suggest that the director seeks to focus purely on the relationship between Elio and Oliver. Thus all other characters, sub-plots and set detailing evolve to facilitate the development of this primary interest. This sense of encouragement is equally emulated by the house itself, whose enfilade of adjoining rooms seem to play a pivotal role in almost cajoling the two characters into each others bedrooms.
The academic Oliver is just staying for the summer; assisting Elio’s father in archaeological research and fieldwork surrounding a series of rediscovered ancient (and very sensual) bronze male nudes. He is staying in Elio’s room, whilst Elio temporarily relocates to the adjoining bedroom, which is separated from the other by a shared bathroom, a shared door and the main upstairs corridor. Thus from the start there is a displaced sense of belonging between Elio and the room (and bed) in which Oliver sleeps; whilst the architecture of open doorways, sightlines and stolen glances feeds into the cheeky lust that grows between them.
Watching the film I was reminded of the emotions conveyed, though through different relationship models, of Guadagnino’s previous two films: I Am Love and A Bigger Splash. The three films are conceived as part of a trilogy the director has titled ‘Desire’, the perfect adjective to describe the shared sense in each, despite their vastly differing tones and storylines. For all three there is a feeling that the buildings, mostly domestic, in which the stories unfold are not mere backdrops but are almost active in the plot.
This is most apparent in A Bigger Splash (2015), a remake based on the 1969 film La Piscine, where the swimming pool of a holiday villa starts as the locus of social encounter in the first half of the narrative but evolves into something disquieting, and to be avoided, as the plot develops in a similarly dark direction. The pool in I Am Love, set in the Villa Necchi by Piero Portaluppi, is also the scene of a terrible event that marks the change in tone and direction of the film. Set in Milan, the film depicts another wealthy Italian family in a northern Italian palatial household, however the house here is used to create a much more claustrophobic series of rooms, a metaphor for the unhappy but dutiful Italian wife, played by Tilda Swinton. There is something about the grand Italian palace that interests Guadagnino; his ability to convey both generosity and entrapment as polar opposite sentiments through an architectural framing of the narrative in such similar types of space is worth taking note.
Call Me By Your Name is probably the most optimistic of these films about love. It is very real and raw in some moments yet overtly romantic and idealised in others. Since it is quite openly a film about love between two males, one might find some alignment in the main themes with more long term trends in cultural discussions surrounding sexuality, identity and gender. However I do not think that at heart this film is polemical about the issues it touches upon; if it was, the love wouldn’t be so easy. Guadagnino seems more interested in re-presenting stories of fleeting love and does so with a focussed attention to detail about the situational quality of these moments, as they exist in time and space. His emphasis extends the narrative to its architectural context. Thus the settings of his films seem to be fully characterised, at times even more so than the figures acting onscreen.