Desire is a wish; a risk; a hunger. Desire starts with an arousal that then becomes a yearning. It alters our perception and changes our molecules. To follow where desire leads can make life better or messier, propelling us towards new versions of ourselves. It can liberate or destroy us. Desire dares us to yield to it and then threatens to consume us in its obsessive waves.
Desire takes on multiple permutations in Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Desire Trilogy.’ Guadagnino didn’t originally design the three films – I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009), A Bigger Splash (2015), and Call Me by Your Name (2017) – as a trilogy, but after the release of Call Me by Your Name, he has referred to them this way and critics have followed1. The films have obvious thematic and narrative parallels. Each asks what desire is, by exploring what desire makes people do. Each addresses desire’s transformative potential – its consequences for the individual and to the society that individual exists in within the world of the film. Desire has an undulating effect; sometimes it is positive and benign; on other occasions, adverse and damaging. Destruction, Guadagnino understands, is a vital element in the rebirth caused by desire.
But desire is more than a narrative and thematic device for Guadagnino. It is also an aesthetic one. ‘The Desire Trilogy’ is striking for its profound synchronicity between subject and style. Guadagnino develops and refines an erotic language that conveys not only what desire looks like, but more importantly, what it feels like. The interplay of objects and physical space, as well as an emphasis on the space between actor’s bodies, captures the urgency of the erotic experience. The camera’s position and movement, the framing and editing of shots and sequences endow a blade of grass, the fold of a fabric, a reclining neck, or a ripe peach with amatory possibilities.
An invisible force2
Throughout ‘The Desire Trilogy,’ desire doesn’t just advance narrative – it is the narrative. Guadagnino’s characters embody longing; without their impulses and needs, there is no story. They are motivated by urges that often appear to be beyond their control. In I Am Love, that longing resides in the body of Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) a Russian émigré who has married into a wealthy Milanese family – textile industrialists with deep roots in the city. Emma is the mother of three adult children. A series of establishing sequences reveals her life as one of stifling, sterile obligation. When Emma meets a younger man, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef and the new friend of her beloved eldest son, Edoardo ‘Edo’ (Flavio Parenti), her desire for him is an awakening that forces her into conflict with the burden of tradition represented by the Recchi clan. She also collides with capitalism, which Guadagnino has described as antithetical to personal freedom and pleasure3. Antonio offers Emma a way back to a more authentic experience of herself through sensual pleasure. Desire brings great loss before renewal. Emma suffers but follows her longing anyway – for her the road to self-fulfilment means destroying the past and never looking back.
Guadagnino further interrogates the darker forces of desire in A Bigger Splash. Ostensibly a remake of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), and inspired by the opacity of the David Hockney painting that gives it its name, A Bigger Splash features Tilda Swinton as Bowie-like rock star Marianne Lane. She’s recovering from vocal surgery and taking some time out with her lover, Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former producer and lover, arrives like a hurricane, interrupting their peaceful paradise. Early on it becomes clear he has come to win her back. Appealing to a nostalgic desire, Harry offers temptations like a snake entering the Garden of Eden. He comes bearing gifts – dangling young, beautiful Penelope Lannier (Dakota Johnson) before Marianne and Paul like an apple. Harry claims she’s his recently discovered daughter, and one of A Bigger Splash’s many intrigues and strengths is that we never quite know the truth about her relationship to him. Desire moves in multiple directions within this quartet, but it is Fiennes’ Harry who is most compulsively compelled and brought spectacularly undone by it.
In Call Me by Your Name, desire is exquisitely hopeful. Seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman’s (Timothée Chalamet) desire for Oliver (Armie Hammer) the 24-year-old American graduate student who is his family’s houseguest for six weeks, is a force for self-discovery; a brief, summertime education in “the things that matter” that Elio confesses he knows very little about. Desire provides both terror and thrills. Chalamet conveys this awakened carnality through a complex, constantly surprising, physical performance. Call Me by Your Name’s narrative is idyllic, in both its bucolic Lombardian setting and execution – Elio and Oliver find no obstructions towards their relationship except their own uncertainty as they surrender slowly to each other. While there is emotional chaos, desire doesn’t have the destructive force at work in both I Am Love and A Bigger Splash. And yet there is a painful progress when Elio loses Oliver at summer’s end. Desire initiates a rebirth for Elio, who it is clear by the film’s affecting finale, is moving towards becoming who he wants to be because he has had the courage to acknowledge what he wants most.
Guadagnino is a master sensualist, crafting images we imagine we can taste, touch, and smell. His is a mise-en-scène pregnant with sensory and sensual pleasures. ‘The Desire Trilogy’s’ tactility, in particular, is key to our emotional engagement with its narrative and visual pleasures. I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and Call Me by Your Name, are all highly immersive viewing experiences that arouse the audience’s own desire, and encourage scopophilic pleasure in the sight of beautiful people luxuriating in delicious Italian locations. Each is a film of the seasons, predominantly of summer, in which bare skin prevails, the sun is always shining, and colour and light are golden and enveloping. But ‘The Desire Trilogy’ is not simply an exercise in surface artifice. Often, that surface, like the perfect life that Emma appears to lead in I Am Love, conceals an imperfect truth. Guadagnino calibrates the visual environment of these three films to create both a pleasurable experience and also a profound one. Every eroticised object, every action lingered over with sensual anticipation, is done so for a reason.
Food is a frequent visual marker of desire throughout the trilogy. Fish, eggs, figs, and other fruits are framed in close-up, either alone, or with hands reaching out to touch them, rendering them tactile and suggestive. For Guadagnino, the pleasures of the flesh and the table are never far apart and food has erotic possibilities linked to the satisfaction of other needs. Food plays a complex role throughout I Am Love, simultaneously an expression of individuality, love, desire, familial bonds, as well as betrayal. While the dinner party that opens the film, to celebrate the birthday of the Recchi patriarch, is a serious affair eaten in austere semi-darkness, Emma’s lunch at the Milan restaurant where Antonio cooks for her is rendered with a far more sensual and operatic tone.
Edo has warned Emma of Antonio, “Since I tried his cooking, I’ve fallen in love with him,” and now it seems Emma runs the same risk4. As the delicate plate of prawns with sweet-and-sour vegetables is presented to Emma and she takes it in with her eyes, Guadagnino bathes her in a warm light as if the film’s negative itself is flushed and aroused. The urgent John Adams score increases in volume, drowning out the sound of Rori (Marisa Berenson), Emma’s mother-in-law, and Eva (Diane Fleri), Edo’s girlfriend, talking. The camera frames Emma in extreme close-up, as she tastes the food, cutting between the plate and her eyes and mouth. She appears to be in a reverie, transported to another place. This interplay of shots, editing, colour, and sound conveys Emma’s awakening into a world of sensual pleasures she has long left behind – the first evocative message of desire transferred from Antonio to Emma via a plate of carefully and artfully prepared food.
In A Bigger Splash, food also features within the mise-en-scène as an object that bonds characters. On his first morning at the house, Harry, horrified by the lack of provisions in the fridge, takes over the kitchen to prepare a salt crust for baking a fish, which we later see him gutting. Guadagnino frames these details intimately – we see Harry kneading the dough, then his hand buried deep inside the fish’s innards. The tactility of the experience of cooking is foregrounded, alongside something more portentous in the bloody fish. Later, while eating the fish for lunch, Penelope asks Marianne, “Did he not cook for you when you were together?” Harry explains that “Marianne did or it didn’t happen. Her mother was mad for cooking. It runs in the family.” Food, we understand was as vital to their relationship as sex.
Later, after a trip to the market where Harry declares to Marianne that he has come to Pantelleria for her and not the island’s famous capers, they stop at the home of locals who make and sell ricotta. The cheese re-establishes food as a sensual connection between them. Guadagnino lingers over the older woman stirring the cheese and Marianne’s immense pleasure in tasting it, which she shares with Harry by spooning the warm cheese into his willing mouth. Outside they share a quiet, calm moment, as the Sirocco ominously picks up around them. Marianne apologises, and Harry is tender with her. There is a sense of newfound intimacy that Harry capitalises on when they return to the house, as they prepare dinner in the kitchen, and he kisses Marianne and attempts to have sex with her.
Call Me by Your Name features multiple sequences around a table. Rather than alluding exclusively to sexual appetites, these are scenes in which life’s pleasures are savoured. But there are also more erotic connotations to be found in individual elements of the mise-en-scène, where the film’s complex language of touch – between characters and objects, and then later between Elio and Oliver – deepens. Oliver’s first breakfast with the Perlmans sees him smash into a soft-boiled egg and delight at the golden yolk that spurts forth. He greedily gulps apricot juice, all under the gaze of Elio’s watchful eye. Oliver’s repeated statement, first in relation to the eggs, then in relation to Elio, that, “I know myself,” confirms a voluptuous hunger.
Call Me by Your Name gives prominence to the ripe peaches and apricots that fill the orchards at the Perlman villa as visual markers of desire. Guadagnino frames a peach on a tree as if endowing it with a personality of its own. After Elio and Oliver become lovers, Guadagnino draws a more intimate connection between the fruit and desire. Elio, anxious and confused about Oliver’s impending departure, masturbates with the aid of a peach – the curves of the fruit a stand in for the curves of Oliver’s ass. The camera’s focus is intently on the violence of removing the stone – showing us Elio’s finger penetrating the soft flesh and pulling it out. During the sex act, Guadagnino keeps the camera on Elio’s face, interested in his response, which traverses a wide emotional terrain that highlights the close relationship for him between desire and shame. The sequence expresses the urgency of Elio’s feelings and the ductility between Oliver’s body and his own.
‘The Desire Trilogy’ demarcates sensual spaces in which desire is aroused and then cultivated. In particular, open, natural spaces feature prominently, lush with shrubbery, flowers, and water. Within these spaces, characters surrender to their environments and to their feelings. The natural world is both generous and malignant towards its inhabitants, providing seclusion in I Am Love, but spitting up snakes and other encroaching wildlife in A Bigger Splash5.
While I Am Love begins in winter, it comes to life once the snow melts and Emma ventures outside. Guadagnino juxtaposes the mausoleum-like space of the Recchi villa, shrouded in snow, rain, or mourning, with the bright, sunny streets and fertile, hilly surrounds of San Remo, where Emma and Antonio rendezvous. Emma drives to San Remo – allegedly on her way to Nice, to meet her daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) – with the voices of her family in her head, thrusting her forward. We hear her husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) say, in relation to Edoardo, “Things change.” In the city, we see that change, as the camera follows Emma walking, emphasising a sense of freedom and discovery as it sits close to her shoulder. Emma’s wardrobe is lighter, looser; she wears a simple orange dress, a colour that recurs when she is with Antonio. Throughout this sequence, as Emma wanders, hoping that she might come across Antonio and eventually does, desire is a thrilling intrigue; the Adams score quickening with increasingly noirish tones.
Sex and intimacy are frequently aligned with nature throughout ‘The Desire Trilogy.’ In I Am Love, nature is a paradise for freedom and self-expression for Emma and Antonio. When we first see them making love, the camera pans away from their naked, entwined bodies to the window, taking in the view of the hills and trees. Later, Antonio cuts Emma’s hair short and we dissolve into a scene of them making love, this time placing them directly within that natural environment. Guadagnino orchestrates this sex scene like a symphony for the senses, shooting predominantly in extreme close-ups that disorient perspective and dissolve body parts into each other. Edits juxtapose extreme close-up shots on flowers, bees, knees, nipples, and sweaty shoulders. The frame is bathed in light; as the lovers reach orgasm, bees pollinate flowers. In a landscape so overwhelmingly sensual and tactile, Guadagnino doesn’t distinguish between one quivering form and another.
A Bigger Splash features a more complex relationship between the natural environment and desire. Guadagnino, who spent time on Pantelleria as a boy, has described the rocky, volcanic Sicilian island as “a fierce, relentless place6.” Alluding to the asylum seekers that continue to wash up on its shores, and who feature prominently in the background of the action in A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino further suggests the island is “a place with an incredible, enormous capacity for indifference7.” Within this logic he positions his desiring quartet as bodies under siege. Early on, when Marianne and Paul drive to the sulphuric mud baths at Lake Venere, the camera swoops out from the car to take in the panorama of the island. The camera movement here mimics a plane, a portent of Harry’s impending arrival that is then mirrored in the image of his plane flying above Marianne and Paul’s heads. When the quartet eats dinner that night at an outdoor restaurant, a similar wide shot of the landscape emphasises how small and insignificant they are in relation to this ancient land.
The island’s hostility amplifies the mystery around what takes place between Penelope and Paul on the afternoon they hike alone. We see them arrive at their destination, a micro beach, where a series of sharp edits places Penelope ahead of Paul, suddenly naked and motioning for him to join her. The sun seems to distort what Paul sees, in turn giving the sequence a dreamlike effect. At dinner that night, Paul is more talkative than ever before, and hungry, as if he and Harry have temporarily swapped personas. Penelope reveals, enigmatically, that they “dived and dived and dived.” Penelope and Paul have ventured deep into the island’s otherness, agitated by the rocky landscape and the wind to behave in ways that disrupt the natural order of things.
In Call Me by Your Name, nature is in harmony with the tentative lovers. Guadagnino makes lush use of the fields that Elio and Oliver traverse to get into town. Much of the film’s action takes place outdoors, but Call Me by Your Name is more concerned with mapping the erogenous zone that exists in the space between Elio and Oliver’s bodies than in how their bodies interact with the landscape. Guadagnino creates a distance between them by placing them at opposite ends of the frame. We see their whole bodies and how they interact as they look for traces of desire in the other. This framing reveals the shifting terrain between them as they move closer, inch-by-inch. In that wide-open space, we sense their yearning and we ache for the space to be bridged as much as they do.
By opening up the space between Elio and Oliver in the frame, Guadagnino captures a powerful intimacy. When Elio and Oliver ride their bikes into town and back, there is a sense of real time passing. They never get anywhere very quickly; the action is never rushed. This delayed gratification, repeated with increasing intensity, becomes the film’s erotic heartbeat – the rhythmic variations between the inevitability of Elio and Oliver’s desire being fulfilled and the tragedy of it ending. When Elio and Oliver finally kiss, Guadagnino positions them side-by-side in the frame, elbow to elbow, the closest they have been. But Guadagnino understands that eroticism demands teasing out this space again and again. After their kiss, a worshipful foot massage bestowed on Elio by Oliver brings their bodies even closer. But then Guadagnino keeps them almost completely apart on screen until the day they first sleep together, dragging out that day by having Oliver disappear entirely from the world of the film until midnight, rendering the tension palpable and excruciating.
Desire is a secret barely contained by the body. We see this struggle for control in I Am Love, when the camera kinetically circles the recently roused Emma while she wanders restlessly through her empty home, and then again, as she’s propelled through the San Remo streets in search of Antonio. It’s the secret that flames Harry’s wild poolside dance sequence in A Bigger Splash, like a courtly display of his virility. It escapes Elio’s lanky body in Call Me by Your Name when he enters Oliver’s bedroom, finds that morning’s discarded red swimming shorts, places them over his face, inhales and thrusts his body slowly down into the bed.
Guadagnino has said that cinema is above all the expression of bodies in space.8 In ‘The Desire Trilogy’ bodies express their desire through restless movements. Camera movement and editing are attuned to the rhythms of lust. In I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, in particular, there is near constant movement, amplifying the sensation of the inner turmoil desire unleashes. Performance style, focused on physical expression over dialogue, reveals just how much of desire is articulated without words. Guadagnino’s desiring bodies have very physical responses to their feelings. On their last night together in Bergamo, Elio vomits when he realises he is about to lose Oliver. Emma’s body language relaxes when she is outside of Milan and her home; her costume is less rigid and formal. Harry repeatedly removes his clothes and dives into the swimming pool as if he needs to cool his body down.
Harry, as Marianne notes, “doesn’t believe in limits,” and Fiennes’ performance in A Bigger Splash embraces these extremes. Harry represents the consequences of desire unchecked. Our introduction to him is as a disembodied voice ranting at hyper-speed and once he enters the film, he never stops talking or moving. Fiennes conveys this exuberance with a complexity that raises Harry above a clichéd middle age man unwilling to relinquish his youth. His facial gestures, when he watches Marianne and Paul alone, suggests real sadness and longing. Fiennes’ body is loose, yet remarkably tense too, exposing how desire makes Harry fixed on destruction. From the moment he steps off the plane he pushes his body into Marianne’s space, disrupting an already precariously balanced environment – serenading her with one of her own songs during a boisterous karaoke session, giving her drugs, and wrapping her in a thick, warm nostalgia blanket. Harry is constantly moving so that Marianne might see her life with Paul, “built for hibernating with,” as sedate by comparison.
Call Me by Your Name’s camerawork is far less ravenous. But Chalamet’s performance is equally restless and searching, expressing Elio’s longing through sharp, jerky movements, slumped shoulders, and keen watchfulness. Guadagnino’s ‘invisibility’ here concentrates his previous vitality into the bodies of his actors, especially Chalamet’s. Like Emma in I Am Love, Elio reveals his desire, mostly, without saying a word. Elio is tied up in knots over his desire for Oliver and Chalamet’s body shows it. When he finally confesses how he feels and they kiss, his body transforms. He is like a spring uncoiling itself. In their subsequent interactions, Chalamet articulates Elio’s adoration through tactile exploration – reaching out to touch Oliver during a foot massage, playfully biting his shoulder, and climbing up and around his body before they sleep together.
Throughout ‘The Desire Trilogy,’ Guadagnino reminds us that what we desire can be fleeting – exiting our world as quickly as it enters. Taking cues from his cinematic heroes, Bernardo Bertolucci, Eric Rohmer, and Maurice Pialat, Guadagnino’s ‘Desire Trilogy’ offers an unsentimental view of a very human condition. If I Am Love and A Bigger Splash rely on dynamic visual flourishes, Call Me by Your Name is a supreme distillation of the intense feelings desire generates, stripped of all artifice. Across all three films, Guadagnino’s erotic aesthetic builds a tangible world of recognisable emotions, a world in which we understand implicitly, that when we desire, there is rarely joy without pain.
- Countless critics have now referred to the three films as a trilogy about desire or trilogy of desire. Guadagnino refers to them this way in a number of interviews including this one: Tomris Laffly, “Sensual Summer: Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name captures the chemistry of attraction,” FilmJournal International, November 17 2017 http://www.filmjournal.com/features/sensual-summer-luca-guadagninos-call-me-your-name-captures-chemistry-attraction ↩
- Guadagnino has described desire as an “invisible force” with “both destructive and generative power.” Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Luca Guadagnino (Melbourne, February 3, 2016) ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Luca Guadagnino (Melbourne, August 4, 2017) ↩
- Although Edo’s sexual desire for Antonio is never explicitly stated, Guadagnino gives their relationship subtle ripples of attraction flowing from Edo to the chef. Edo’s teary breakdown, late in the film, after we learn that Eva is pregnant and his inability to answer his sister’s inquiry about why he’s not happy support this reading. Eva, as if warning against the dangers of desire, notes in relation to Edo and Antonio’s business venture, “Too much enthusiasm can cause one not to think straight.” Edo’s anger at Emma’s affair with Antonio – revealed via his knowledge of the Russian soup recipe – can be seen as a sense of betrayal not at his mother’s infidelity but at her choice of lover. Unlike his mother, Edo doesn’t have the courage to follow his desire ↩
- Swimming pools also feature as erogenous zones in the trilogy. They are central to the action in A Bigger Splash, where the pool is the site for Harry and Paul’s competitive displays; and in Call Me by Your Name, where Elio and Oliver flirt and literally test the waters between them ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Luca Guadagnino (Melbourne, February 3, 2016). ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Luca Guadagnino (Melbourne, February 3, 2016). ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Luca Guadagnino (Melbourne, February 3, 2016). ↩