Luca Guadagnino likes houses. The 46-year-old Italian director has a history of lavishing homes in his films with the same love he gives his human characters. It could be argued that Guadagnino’s choice of Villa Necchi as the imposing temple of beauty in his 2009 masterpiece I Am Love was as important as his casting of Tilda Swinton. And 2015’s A Bigger Splash relies on the den of iniquity on the island of Pantelleria in which its protagonists pursue their misbegotten fates.
The piano and slipcovered furniture in the Perlmans’ living room.
In the opening sequence of Call Me By Your Name, the third film in his “desire trilogy” and based on the acclaimed 2007 novel by André Aciman, we watch rangy 17-year-old Elio Perlman (played by Timothée Chalamet) emptying a large wooden armoire full of clothes in a bedroom of his family’s Lombardian home. Moments later, after observing from his window the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American grad student tasked with assisting Elio’s professor father with his summer research, Elio leads him to the now-vacated sleeping quarters (he himself stays in a smaller adjacent chamber), explaining, “My room is now your room. I’ll be next door. We have to share a bathroom — it’s my only way out.”
The remnants of a meal in the kitchen.
Incidentally, the lavatory in question — a pale blue–tiled 1930s-style space — becomes more a way in than an escape: It is through the bathroom one morning that Elio spies Oliver’s perky, naked behind as he changes into swimming trunks, igniting a latent sexual charge that blossoms over the course of the movie into a tentatively passionate and moving affair.
The expansive vestibule of Villa Albergoni.
Set in 1983 in the Villa Albergoni, a former fortress converted into a 17th-century home in the Lombardian town of Moscazzano, Call Me By Your Name is a story of first love and of the deep bonds between members of the French-Italian-American-Jewish Perlman family. And the home and interiors in which these narratives unfold are at once catalysts for and extensions of their inhabitants’ emotions. The connective infrastructure of the sky-hued bathroom, for example, drives the psyches of its protagonists.
The exterior of Villa Albergoni.
On the eve of the movie’s New York Film Festival premiere at Lincoln Center, I met Guadagnino, Aciman, and set decorator Violante Visconti di Modrone for an intimate chat, during which it became abundantly clear that such design decisions were crucial in propelling the story’s emotional narrative.
Rumpled sheets in one of the bedrooms.
“I wanted an anticipation that someone might walk in unannounced or uninvited or unexpected and create a sense of suspense,” says Aciman of his novel, in which Elio’s and Oliver’s bedrooms are connected via a balcony. “In a strange way,” adds Guadagnino, “I think the bathroom is even stronger [than the balcony], because it brings a degree of intimacy — emotional and physiological nudity.”
Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) enters the Villa Albergoni vestibule.
In fact, when Aciman was writing his book, his entry point was not Elio or Oliver or even Elio’s father and mother, a Greco-Roman professor and translator, respectively. It was a light-dappled, arched-balconied building surrounded by wild gardens in an 1884 Monet painting whose image arrested him and whose provenance he uncovered as Bordighera, a small town on the Italian Riviera.
Elio and Oliver resolve an argument with help from a statue's arm.
“The villa in the Monet. The vision of the house. I loved the house, and I wanted to people it. I had no idea who was going to be in it,” explains Aciman, whose abiding fear when the film was being made (James Ivory penned the screenplay) was that the environs would be too beautiful. “That’s one of the things I was scared of: that the movie was going to be lush, the house was going to be lush.”
Elio and Oliver (Armie Hammer) bike to town.
This is not an altogether surprising concern given the richness that tends to characterize Guadagnino’s cinematic landscapes. Villa Necchi’s starkly delineated hauteur (not to mention Swinton’s wardrobe, which was designed by Raf Simons for Jil Sander) was the stuff of Italian Brutalist dreams, while the ancient dammuso, or one-story stone home, in A Bigger Splash (situated in the eco-resort of Tenuta Borgia) was a cosmopolite’s paradise.
A statue seen on a trip to an archaeological site in Lake Garda.
The Perlmans are, as Guadagnino puts it, “neither stuffy nor rich people,” and their home needed to convey that. Fortunately, in Guadagnino’s and Visconti di Modrone’s hands, Villa Albergoni is the perfectly imperfect realization of the Perlmans’ Italian existence, a place that is at once grand in scale and intimate and rumpled in feel.
A clock tower in the the town of Crema.
Guadagnino’s own apartment—a space he meticulously renovated, uncovering original frescoes and terra-cotta bricks—is in a 17th-century palazzo in Crema, a 15-minute drive from Moscazzano. Besides the obvious convenience of picking a location near his residence (his production team, editing studio, and offices are in the same building), the enclosed surroundings of Villa Albergoni reminded him of the landscapes of Bernardo Bertolucci films, “these countries where you don’t have a horizon other than the trees and the little lawns and the streams of water,” he says. Such a setting was well suited to the Perlmans’ duality of intellectual precocity and unstudied ease.
Elio transcribing a piece of music.
“I wanted to immerse the characters in something without a horizon that could [show] what is ahead of you. I wanted something more present and in the now,” he says of moving away from the book’s coastal setting.
The library of Villa Albergoni, site of the Perlman family home.
“Luca wanted this austere home to become a very loved home for the Perlman family,” adds Visconti di Modrone, the grandniece of the director Luchino Visconti. “We had to transform this austerity, putting inside elements of the everyday, giving us ideas of how the Perlmans were multicultural people, and very open-minded, who loved books, music, and art.”
And so the living room (whose original incarnation was, in Guadagnino’s words, “a sad and really uninteresting room”) became, thanks to Visconti di Modrone, an inviting repository. Italian by nationality but born in Singapore, she added a global influence, covering much of the furniture in Indian and Southeast Asian cotton fabrics (some from her own personal collection, and some from friends’ families whom she felt bore a resemblance to the Perlmans), including a cozy, blue and white–patterned example covering the sofa on which Elio and his parents curl up in a tangle of legs and arms for a reading one night.
Elio heading downstairs.
A turn-of-the-20th-century piano is the site of both Elio’s virtuosic performances for his family and a fiery, flirtatious series of arrangements of an early Bach piece he plays for Oliver. On the walls hang a mix of maps from the famous Stamperia Perini print store in Verona and 18th-century Japanese paintings from an antiques store in Milan called Piva.
Maps from Perini and Piva also pepper Mr. Perlman’s library, an enveloping womb of a space that is, fittingly, the site of a pivotal scene in which father and son have a heartfelt discussion of Elio’s relationship with Oliver. Visconti di Modrone retained the space’s original dusty-rose sofa (“It gives the sensation of coziness and shabby chic that is right for the library — you feel that people stood and worked there,” she notes) but covered the walls in a gorgeous rust-inflected brocade from the fabric company Dedar, with whom Guadagnino also collaborated for his forthcoming horror film Suspiria. As a nod to Mr. Perlman’s profession, she layered the brocade with antique cameos of Lombardian kings and filled the shelves with flea-market tomes on Greco-Roman sculpture.
Mafalda, the Perlmans' cook and housekeeper, in the kitchen.
Such intense attention to detail imbues even the most seemingly mundane touches with clues to the characters’ lives. The walls of Elio’s room (now slept in by Oliver) are papered with 1980s posters for La Biennale and a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, a nod to his casually cultured upbringing. The aged tumblers from which Mr. Perlman sips his whiskey belonged to Visconti di Modrone’s father, Barnabò Visconti di Modrone. The table where the Perlmans enjoy breakfast alfresco sports a plastic checkered tablecloth to which Visconti di Modrone added patches and discoloration to make it look worn (the plates and saucers she sourced, again, from friends so they would have a lived-in feel).
The aftermath of an alfresco meal.
“It’s a house that accepts the passage of time, that accepts what you do. It’s all fine, and it’s welcoming, and it’s warm,” observes Aciman. “You can’t get away from that feeling of warmth that this family exudes, and it’s in the house.”
The Perlmans’ gardener tends to a fruit tree.
That same sentiment takes on a more carnal, visceral quality outdoors. After all, it is in nature that we are likely to abandon the social strictures that bind us to our tidy roles. A garden doesn’t yield to one’s body the way, say, a slipcovered sofa might. But it can inspire the fantasies that fuel our actions. And so Guadagnino and Visconti di Modrone’s mutual friend Gaia Chaillet Giusti (who also worked with Guadagnino on A Bigger Splash) injected life into Villa Albergoni’s dying but classic giardina Italiana schema; she added apricot trees (whose juice the Perlmans sip at breakfast) and peach trees (whose luscious fruit inspires Elio in a particularly intimate sexual scene).
Oliver’s 1983 Converse sneakers at a disco in Moscazzano.
And art director Roberta Federico built the trough (a de facto swimming pool where Elio’s and Oliver’s glistening bodies play cat and mouse), sourcing recycled stone from the nearby Bianchessi warehouse and painting it to look 300 years old.
“The idea that a family like that would have a pool in a place like that was alien — it would have been nouveau riche,” notes Guadagnino of choosing an unconventional watering hole. “And I had a tragic pool in I Am Love.”
Mr. and Mrs Perlman lounge outside.
The director’s particular, obsessive approach to creating living, breathing places is an offshoot, in part, of his frustration with “how irritatingly narrow Italian cinema looked in the ’80s.” As a young man seduced by the power of and deeply immersive feel to mid-20th-century Italian films, he understands how crucial a setting is to a narrative and the people therein.
“We tell stories, and those stories must happen in the space. Because we are not the product of, say, a piece of dialogue. The character must be a product of the behavior and interaction of the space,” explains Guadagnino. “So for me, space is everything.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Siweb.