Learning from the Greats: Multilingualism in Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name enjoyed massive global critical success, over the last year, having received 87 awards. In the end, James Ivory even walked away with the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. I’m not sure if anyone saw the success of the film coming. It’s a queer love story, based on a well-received but relatively unknown novel. It stars the previously unknown Timothée Chalamet and was in development hell for years before a director was eventually found in Luca Guadagnino, who was at first only brought on to scout locations. However, the most shocking element about the Hollywood-level success of this film, especially in the UK, is how undeniably European it is.

It might not be so difficult to believe after BREXIT, but the UK isn’t the biggest fan of foreign language films. According to a study made by European Commission, a mere 5% of people asked said that they had watched “many” foreign language films. Distributors put very few foreign language films in British film circulation at any one time and the majority of these are limited releases in arthouse theatres. Foreign language films are a particularly niche market in the UK. Another study by the BFI found that British people rated only 58% of non-English films as ‘good’ in terms of production quality, compared with 93% of Hollywood and 95% of British films. Completely aside from which country’s film industry has the most money to dish out, the European film industry isn’t Hollywood and their films usually doesn’t achieve that look of being confused for one (of course, most of the time they’re not trying to). But Call Me By Your Name is beautifully shot, with an excellent understanding of framing, and fully confident in its control of its audience’s emotions with every trick of the light and sound. Having said that, the film’s budget was poor at a mere $3.5million. Poor, at least, in comparison to its Oscar competition for Best Film. Comparatively, Darkest Hour had a budget of $30 million and while Gary Oldman may be giving one of the best performances of his life and Joe Wright is, as ever, very technically brilliant; the film is stale. It lacks any of the power to impact emotionally at the same level as Call Me By Your Name achieves.

And so why is that? What makes this film’s story so effective? Part of it certainly comes from the acting talent on display. Although, interestingly, Hammer, Chalamet and Stuhlbarg are the only American actors involved. The rest of the cast is made up of mainly French and Italian actors. Whilst Chalamet and Stuhlbarg deliver completely stand-out performances, it’d be a crime to underplay any actor in this film. But that is something the English tend to do. In the same study by the BFI, acting was rated as 61% ‘good’ from non-English films, compared with 87% for Hollywood and 94% for British. Now, a fair amount of the discrepancy here results from what is lost in translation. It can be very difficult to catch all the nuances of performance when your eyes are skipping between the actor and the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. A lesser film would have made the whole film in English, perhaps aside from non-vital characters like the house staff. In the logic of film, this would make perfect sense. It’s certainly the safer move, more likely to appease more audience members. But Guadgnino has no interest in playing it safe and anyone who’s seen the film’s infamous “peach” scene knows that.

The first word of the film is in Italian. “Usurpatore” Elio says and until Hammer speaks, there’s a held breath in the cinema audience as they begin to wonder whether they’ve just paid to watch a film entirely out of their tongue. When that’s not the case, you think that choice was made to help set up the location of Italy and establish the character’s heritage. But no, the film’s far cleverer than that. There’s more than enough English to get this film by with the majority of the casual audience but what Call Me By Your Name strives to do is accurately represent multilingual families. Now, there is a bit of a tug on the suspension of disbelief. Eilo is this perfect representation of the modern renaissance man, musically gifted, incredibly well-read and can speak at least three different languages but it’s grounded in the setting. This concept is alien to most British people; we’re not all members of the Royal family and speaking two languages conversationally by age two (look it up!). In fact, only 39% of people in the UK can speak a second language conversationally at all. Compare this to the rest of Europe where 54% of people can speak minimum two languages fluently. Still, we believe this family and how academically minded and ambitious they are. What’s more, we believe it when Eilo will break into sudden bouts of Italian with his father and switch to speaking French with his mother. They may live mostly in America but they’re adamant about not being Americans and the way they speak to each other, effortlessly bouncing between languages is so typically European, you completely buy into it and your sold on the strength of the family bond as a result.

The language is also used to convey emotion in a more effective way. When Marzia and Eilo are coming to terms with the end of their own brief relationship, Marzia speaks in Italian and Eilo replies in simple English. On a superficial level, Italian simply sounds more passionate than English does and immediately, you get the sense of how invested Marzia and Eilo both are in the contrasting tones of their conversation. On a deeper level, you realise that Marzia is so upset that she can’t translate her thoughts into her second language and Eilo is reluctant to put the effort in to match her, until he realises how upset she is. When Marzia, in English, finally succumbs and asks “Am I your girl?” Eilo can’t bring himself to bother to reply in any language and merely shrugs, ending it. It’s a very powerful scene and communication through language is a large part of what makes it hard to forget.

In any creative writing classroom, chances are good that your teacher will drill into you Hemingway’s old mantra “Write what you know.” It’s certainly not bad advice. Particularly for your first project, writing something that you’re familiar with, are likely passionate about, is a good starting point to ensure quality. This is particularly easy for novelists who don’t need to scout out the street they grew up on or someone who looks like that old man they met in the pub one night; they can just form them from memory. But whilst Call Me By Your Name may have been filmed in Crema, the Italy that Guadagnino creates isn’t of this world. For example, it was raining almost everyday the crew were out filming; most of the light in the film is artificial. More than that, it comes from André Aciman’s mind of what his Italian childhood should have been like. Even for someone who has never been to Italy, there’s the undeniable sense of nostalgia that shines through in this film. At a time when we thought we were getting sick of our media being set in the 80s, this film serves as a strong reminder of why that trend is currently so strong. We have all the power to reimagine the 80s as a new, idyllic world and make it important to the people of today. As a writer, you should never be afraid to take risks and it’s not always necessary to write what you know. Sometimes you need to write about what you want to see and then hope that others want to see it too.

Sources: BFI. 2011. Opening Our Eyes: How Film Contributes to the Culture of the UK. London: BFI, p.45.

by Reece Mawhinney

(Images from Call Me By Your Name, courtesy of Frenesy Film Company)