Altered images: The technical devices of Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me by Your Name’
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, decidedly one of the best films of the year, features some inspired technical choices that deepen the emotional depth of the story and its relationship with the medium.
The film is demonstrates deftness in adapting the story from its written source material. Guadagnino takes particular care in developing the interiority of Elio’s emotional arc in the film. The original novel delivers pages and pages of Elio’s internal monologue. We see his romance play out from the way his mind picks apart, dramatizes, and obsesses over every second of his relationship with Oliver.
By way of form, the film eschews this monologuing in favor of visual cues and nonverbal communication. Rather than deliver flat voiceover, the film uses visual elements that convey Elio’s internal conflict, longing, desire, and heartbreak.
There is one particular scene in the film that spotlights Guadagnino’s use of technical devices to hone in on Elio's inner narrative. The scene is relatively simple: Elio sits outside at dusk beneath an archway of dense foliage waiting for Oliver. He asks Mafalda if she knows where Oliver is. She does not. At this moment, Sufjan Steven’s “Futile Devices” begins to play as an abstract blue-green light obscures the shot of Elio as he gazes into the distance, biting on the chain of his Star of David necklace as his face fills with melancholy. Within this abstract light, there is an ever-so-brief inclusion of a frame of film set against Elio’s face, shrouded in darkness.
This scene, specifically the inclusion of a frame of film, provides remarkable insight into the way the film uses technical elements can enhance the narrative. The simplest interpretation of this moment is that it is a conscious nod to form. Film is inherently grounded in creation, craft, and artifice; attempts at capturing reality are, by the nature of the form, futile. The power of fiction allows us see and feel things we deny ourselves in reality.
Call Me by Your Name does not purport to be a depiction of reality; rather, it understands, better than most movies, the very medium that supports its existence. This moment feels like, at the very least, an admission that this story could only have been depicted in this specific way, using film as the method of storytelling.
Moreover, the visual abstraction and the inclusion of a frame of film highlights the way the film uses technical elements to develop the interiority of Elio’s emotional characterization. As the blue-green light obscures Elio’s form, it makes him appear etheral.
This is a particularly important contrast to the rest of the film that stresses the desirability and significance of the human body. That this moment in the film, one defined almost solely by Elio’s romantic longing for Oliver, chooses to obscure Elio’s physical form is no coincidence; it’s a distinction that serves to articulate the seriousness and significance of Elio’s feelings. His feelings extend beyond physical desire to something far more profound.
Guadagnino’s choice to layer a reel of film on top of this scene signals the intimacy between film as a medium and Elio’s love for Oliver. This is not to say that they are one in the same, but this scene undeniably conflates the two as if to say: the process of falling in love, if you can call it a process, is remarkably similar to that of making a movie. It consists of storyboarding, scene choreography, abrupt cuts, unscripted moments, take twos and threes, and naturally, replaying the footage over and over in your mind. By obscuring the image of Elio with the very material upon which the film is recorded is an irrefutable gesture towards the power of the medium and the connection the story has to it.
This is not the only time in the film where Guadagnino chooses to alter the images in the film to articulate Elio’s internal emotional arc. In the last act of the film, Elio and Oliver take a trip to Bergamo. On their final morning together, we are briefly afforded a look into Elio’s dreams. The dream is a short montage of Elio and Oliver together, but shown through thermal imaging.
Simply put, the thermal imaging is a choice that helps distinguish the scene as a part of a dream. More than that, however, it is emphasizes how technical choices can both articulate the emotional arc of the characters and draw the relationship between the story and the medium.
The thermal imaging is an acute reminder of Call Me by Your Name’s reflexivity; the scene draws a clear connection between the story and its technical composition. Guadagnino is not interested in lulling the audience into a false sense of realism; moments like this are reminder of the fictional foundation of the story and how technical choices can elevate the power and impact of the narrative itself.
Moreover, the thermal imaging stresses how profound and passionate Elio's feelings for Oliver are. Unlike most love stories, Call Me by Your Name steers relatively clear of grand romantic gestures and Shakespearian soliloquys. The romance between Oliver and Elio is composed of the sentiments found within their silences and the implications of what they cannot say.
The dream, intensified through the use of thermal imaging, is a powerful piece of visual storytelling that achieves far more than any romantic gesture might. It’s revealing of the passion and depth of Elio’s love, demonstrating just how deeply rooted it is within his subconscious. Without a single written word, the dream communicates the complexity of the story’s central romance.
These pieces represent a small portion of the directorial decisions made by Guadagino in the making of Call Me by Your Name. These technical components develop a deeper emotional landscape while strengthening the film’s connection to the medium. This striking union of narrative and technical prowess pays off long after the credits roll, demonstrating the beauty that comes from the very craft of filmmaking.