World-renowned Italian director Luca Guadagnino — whose film “Suspiria” was just released in theaters — is best known for his Oscar-winner “Call Me By Your Name.” In this film, a prominent theme is Elio’s journey of coming to terms with his feelings of desire for the first time. But while many reveled in Elio’s world, most missed Guadagnino’s two previous films — “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” — which work in congruence with “Call Me By Your Name” to form a trilogy that delves into the fundamental feelings and motivations that form desire.
In “A Bigger Splash,” released in 2015, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) lacks a core relationship with any of the other characters but expresses an impassioned attraction toward his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) and his ex-girlfriend Marianne (Tilda Swinton). In typical Guadagnino fashion, Harry’s unorganized desires are conveyed on-screen in a pure, watered-down way through gestures and touches. This is ingenious because, as a viewer who cannot help but relate to Harry’s spontaneous, hedonic expressions of excitement, it is impossible to invalidate Harry’s desires, no matter how taboo they may seem.
Guadagnino takes a similar approach in “I Am Love,” enticing the audience to root for lead character Emma (Swinton), a married woman, as she attempts to pursue her longing for Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). This relationship between the audience and the characters on screen is where Guadagnino excels, and he successfully argues that context does not matter when it comes to the legitimacy of an emotion. A person cannot control when their desire is inflamed and Guadagnino mirrors this unpredictable nature by depicting it in an amoral frame of infidelity.
The perfect example of this is the now-infamous peach scene in “Call Me By Your Name,” where Elio (Timotheée Chalamet) intimately engages with a peach. Elio’s resonating sense of longing is lucidly and convincingly portrayed, regardless of the fact that a fruit happens to be the recipient of his desires. Through these tactics, Guadagnino argues for a subject-focused definition of desire, thus implicitly authorizing a sociopolitical narrative based on the inherent sameness and validity of all feelings of desire.
“I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” heavily rely on luscious visuals to carry through a sensual, imaginative world. As a result, much of how Guadagnino incorporates his narratives surrounding desire seem aimless and empty. In “I Am Love”, there are over two minutes of Emma staring at her prawn dish that her love interest Antonio prepared. The camera cuts to the prawn dish from all angles and zooms into Emma’s eyes as she stares at it lustfully. The voices in the background hush and the noises of Emma chewing her food and her utensils clinking with the plate are amplified. Emma projects her longing for Antonio onto the dish, thus contributing to Guadagnino’s greater effort to generalize the concept of desire and free the feeling of longing from the confines of Emma’s relationship with Antonio.
However, the scene is exaggerated. Guadagnino makes a hopeful attempt to break down human desire to its most basic state, but the effort contributes to an overall sense of pretentiousness that the film exudes. “A Bigger Splash” similarly paints the abstraction of desire through non-verbal cues between characters, succeeding in inciting the same feeling in the audience, but failing to bring about any sort of insight.
“Call Me By Your Name,” on the other hand, excels. In Elio’s father’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) acclaimed monologue at the end of the film, he articulately explains to Elio that experiencing the full circle of human desire is precious and special — even if he feels hurt at the moment, he should never be afraid to embrace his emotions. He urges Elio to allow himself to experience all the desires and emotions he feels without judging himself. This integral scene, and the film at large, neatly brings Guadagnino’s thematic exploration of the human desire to a clear conclusion. “Call Me By Your Name” drives home the idea that people should experience the world through their desires and emotions rather than guarding themselves against these feelings.
When looking at the release of these movies chronologically, it’s obvious that Guadagnino grows as a director as he figures out how to use his storytelling abilities to present feelings of love and desire in their most rudimentary form — without any added bulk, conflict or complications. But it is with the final film, “Call Me By Your Name,” that Guadagnino’s true progress is clear as he imagines a world which argues for the purity and validity of desire.
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