"Somewhere in Northern Italy..."

Two portraits of transformative summers in Unrelated and Call Me by Your Name

by Fiona Underhill

The notion of wealthy Brits and Americans summering in Europe or ‘finding themselves’ in a summer abroad is by no means a new one. The Grand Tour and later the Cook’s Tour were established features of 17th to 19th century British life and were a rite-of-passage for those on the cusp of adulthood. Films based on the works of Henry James (Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady) and EM Forster (A Room with a View) have captured this tradition and are usually ripe with scandalous affairs set amongst the jaw-dropping architecture and art-work of Florence and Venice. The 1950s had the summer romance films Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953) and Summertime (Lean, 1955). The 90s were positively bursting with films depicting expats in Italy including Anthony Minghella’s period films The English Patient (1996) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993), as well as Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996). 

Italian director Luca Guadagnino has focused on expats living (even if part-time) in Italy in three films now – I Am Love (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015) and Call Me by Your Name (2017) - which have all focused on family dynamics and romantic affairs. British director Joanna Hogg is finally starting to be more widely noticed (particularly by Americans) thanks to the Sundance success of The Souvenir (2019). Due to this, the Criterion Channel has added her three previous works; Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), all of which explore the painfully awkward tension that can exist amongst middle-class British families, who will do anything to avoid saying what they really think or feel. Hogg is known for the level of naturalism in her dialogue and the performances she elicits from her actors, to the extent that it feels like watching something completely real. She deserves to be as well known and respected as Mike Leigh, whose work also includes performances which appear very loose and improvisational.

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Call Me by Your Name features a protagonist of the kind of age that you would expect to be going through a transformative, coming-of-age experience. Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a 17 year old American boy who loses his virginity both to a woman and a man (on the same day?!), but much more significantly experiences a first love which we know will have lasting impact on him. Conversely, the protagonist of Unrelated is Anna (Kathryn Worth) - a woman in her 40s, but you could argue that her summer spent near Siena changes her just as much as Elio’s near Crema. Anna arrives in Italy (to the surprise of her hosts), without her husband. The beautiful Tuscan house is the summer home of her old school friend Verena (Mary Roscoe), Verena’s husband Charlie (Michael Hadley) and their children Jack (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), Archie (Harry Kershaw) and Badge (Emma Hiddleston, Tom’s sister). Staying with them are Verena’s cousin George (David Rintoul) and his son Oakley (Tom Hiddleston, in what might be his best performance). The house is pretty clearly divided between The Young and The Olds, but Anna gravitates towards, and is embraced by the teenagers. In Call Me by Your Name, the arrogant American grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives into the huge and stunning house of Mr Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Mrs Perlman (Amira Casar). They are a ridiculously loving and supportive family, are fluent in several languages each, as well as being musically talented and academic. This is a much healthier and more functional environment than the situation Anna is in, where simmering resentments are waiting to come to the fore.

The Framing of Domesticity

Both Anna and Oliver are finding escape and solace in these idyllic Italian surroundings, which are provided by both nature and the domestic scene around them. Anna wants a break from marital tensions and, although we know very little about Oliver, we do find out that he has a strict father and an “on-again, off-again” fiancée. The families in both films come from extreme privilege – they have large vacation homes in Italy, complete with an Italian housekeeper. Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom chose to shoot Call Me by Your Name on a single 35mm lens to aid the intimacy and realism. Joanna Hogg’s DP Oliver Curtis shot on digital video, but it is Hogg’s blocking and framing which is truly masterful. Guadagnino includes so many tiny moments and details that add depth to the world of the Perlmans, from dripping wet swimming shorts hanging over faucets to the housekeeper Mafalda resignedly closing the freezer after Elio retrieves ice for his nosebleed. One shot follows Elio down a corridor – he greets his Mother with a hug and kiss. Then – instead of the camera following our protagonist up the stairs, as you would expect, it follows Elio’s mother into the kitchen, where Mafalda is hand making pasta with a friend. These decisions aid the feeling of domestic bliss which Oliver finds himself in and does not want to leave. 

In Unrelated, the kitchen is also a hub of the home – breakfast scenes punctuate the narrative – starting with Anna’s first morning, where she awkwardly meets everyone. The static camera centrally frames a doorway to a courtyard, through to another open doorway to the laundry room, adding such depth to the scene. The ‘players’ move around the frame, as if on a stage – the housekeeper busies herself, ignoring the concerns of these middle-class Brits. The following morning, Anna has gotten to know The Young, especially Oakley a bit better and there is possibly some sexual or romantic tension between them. At the breakfast table, Anna unties her hair, perhaps a small gesture to make her appear more desirable. She says “Good Morning” to everyone except Oakley, highlighting that she views him differently. The final breakfast scene, after much has passed between the characters, shows a peace of sorts – Oakley says “cheers” with his coffee cup, Anna can’t choose which cup to “cheers” back with – showing she is just as awkward as ever. She is then left alone at the table, smiling sadly to herself, reflecting on her time in Italy.

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Turmoil in Town Squares

In both Call Me by Your Name and Unrelated, pivotal scenes take place in slightly more urban environments. Elio confesses his feelings for Oliver – skirting around the issue with hints, rather than explicitly stating his emotions – in a scene that takes place around the WWI monument in the middle of Crema. In Unrelated, the characters go to the Siena for the day. Verena gets Anna to go shopping with her and Badge. Oakley looks visibly disappointed, but comforts himself with beers in a bar that has a view of the local ladies passing by. Later, Oakley and Anna are reunited in the town square and have a painfully raw and honest conversation about marriage, sex and children. In CMBYN, both the camera and the actors circle around the monument - the whirling movement echoes the inner turmoil. Elio and Oliver do not look at one another directly and Elio whispers the refrain “because I wanted you to know” – the scene has a poetic, lyrical and rhythmic quality. The music swells and drops during this scene, again reflecting Elio’s pulsing desire – he is propelled towards Oliver, but they must dance around one another. For now, at least, they are in public and must deny their impulses. The scene between Anna and Oakley is a four minute long take, again with a static camera. It is a two-shot reminiscent of the famous scene in Leigh’s Secret and Lies when Cynthia realizes that Hortense is her daughter. In contrast to Elio and Oliver, Anna and Oakley share a lot of eye contact, even though Anna frequently looks away. Oakley is definitely the calmer of the two, he is the inquisitor and Anna is under interrogation, squirming under his gaze at times. Hogg does not use non-diegetic music at all, adding to the verisimilitude. In both scenes, it is the acting more than anything that has to sell the nuance and layers of what is happening. There is much more going than just the dialogue in both cases. The audience is urging these characters on, willing them to “speak or die.”

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The Olds learning from The Young

Although the age gap between Oliver and Elio is less pronounced than the one between Anna and Oakley, in both cases the older ones are influenced by and learn from the teenagers. Both Elio and Oakley frequently show wisdom, confidence and emotional intelligence that outstrips Oliver and Anna. This does not mean that they don’t display the more negative and stereotypical traits of teenagers at times also. Oakley, especially, is cocky and arrogant. Anna almost immediately is drawn to the young people in the house and becomes part of their drinking games and other rituals. Verena tells an embarrassing story about Anna telling the teachers that Verena was smoking behind the bike-sheds at school. Later Anna succumbs to peer pressure when Oakley offers her a cigarette. In the aforementioned pivotal town square scene, Oliver buys cigarettes and offers Elio one. Elio says; “I thought you didn’t smoke” Oliver replies; “I don’t.” This suggests that Oliver has been influenced by the European teenagers he is surrounded by. The older ones learn and grow as a result of their interaction with those younger than them in a positive way as well. Oliver and Anna become more open, honest and vulnerable during their summers in Italy. 

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In Call Me by Your Name, the protagonist is the younger one, who is established in familiar surroundings (the house where he and his family spend their summers and other holidays). It is into this tranquil paradise that Oliver – the interloper or l’usurpateur (as Elio calls him) – arrives to disrupt the status quo. In Unrelated, the protagonist is the older one, she is the outsider and onlooker – she is the ‘unrelated’ of the title. She attempts to adapt to her surroundings by assimilating with the group of young people, but ends up betraying the trust of both The Olds and The Young. She becomes a pariah. Oliver initially butts heads with Elio, which culminates with Hammer’s icy delivery of “just don’t play at being the good host” to Elio in the back of Mr Perlman’s car. Tom Hiddleston achieves the same menacing cold-eyed demeanor after Anna has snitched on The Young when he tells her; “I have nothing to say to you.” After this point of conflict, Oliver and Elio go on to have an intense and passionate love affair, which will always stay with Elio. Anna and Oakley never consummate the simmering tension between them and after things come to a head, they reach an unspoken truce by the end. Again, this friendship is likely to have more of a lasting impact on the protagonist, but part of the joy of movies is speculating on what happens to characters once the cameras stop rolling. In order to do this, the characters have to feel real and this is something that Guadagnino (aided by writers Aciman/Ivory and actors Hammer/Chalamet) and Hogg (aided by actors Worth and Hiddleston) have definitely achieved. These are people that you care about and invest in. There is no doubt that these characters have been utterly transformed by their summers somewhere in Northern Italy.

This article was featured in MJ’s Summer 2019 print zine available here