Fact: It's almost impossible to pry one's eyes away from the smoldering sexual tension between Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. Still, it's worth making the effort, mostly because the film's quieter, less explosive relationships are just as complex and touching as the main event.
One of these is the tumultuous friendship between Elio (Chalamet) and his childhood friend Marzia, played by French up and comer Esther Garrel. As a woman, watching her fall in love with the boy she's known her whole life — only to be pushed aside for Oliver (Hammer) — felt like a replay of some of my own failed teenage love stories. In the 2007 book by Andre Aciman on which the film is based on, Marzia plays a more limited role. Movie Marzia is Elio's anchor, in a way. She's there at the beginning when he meets Oliver for the first time, and she's there at the end when Elio returns to the house, distraught that his lover has gone. But it's also a testament to Garrel's acting, and director Luca Guadagnino's vision, that Marzia doesn't come off as a flat, tangential character.
“It’s so funny because a lot of girls came up to me after screenings to say, ‘We are on your side,' Garrel told me in an interview prior to the film's release this week. "It was an honor, actually."
Call Me By Your Name is Garrel's first major foray into American cinema, but in her native France, she's known as someone to watch. She was recently listed among the female "Revelations" of the year at the César Awards (the French Oscars) for her role in her father's film, L'amant d'un jour (Lover for a Day). That's another thing about her — Garrel is descended from European film legends. Her grandfather, Maurice Garrel, was a famous actor; her father, Phillippe Garrel, is a visionary of the French New Wave; her mother, Brigitte Sy, is an actress, screenwriter and director; and her brother, Louis Garrel, is France's current acting heartthrob (who just happens to have Joe Keery hair).
That heritage endeared her to Guadagnino, whose casting director suggested Garrel for the role of Marzia. But in the end, it was her acting that won him over. "Yesterday we stayed in the cinema a bit longer towards the end, so I saw the scene of Elio coming back home after he’s parted ways with Oliver, and meeting Marzia again," he said. "It’s beautiful to see the fabric of the way Esther Garrel acts, and the way [Timothee] does, but also how it becomes very harmonious. It was a privilege to assist that."
Garrel is equally effusive about her experience with Guadagnino. "I love working with him so much! I had this incredible working relationship with him on set," she gushed in our interview. "It doesn’t go through the words between us, it goes through another path, in an indefinable place that is really foreign to the language. It’s so hard to explain how and why, and what happened exactly. I remember the first time we met in Paris, he proposed the role, and the second we met I felt the desire to leave myself to him as an actress."
Hammer and Chalamet have told stories of how immersive the experience of filming this movie was — they were holed up for weeks in a small Italian town even before the start of shooting so that their relationship would feel really authentic. The same principle applied to Garrel and Chalamet, who in the film are supposed to have known each other for years, and eventually share a sex scene of their own.
"You don’t want to create any sort of artificial intimacy," Chalamet said. "Similar to Armie, we had the privilege of spending weeks together in advance and getting to know each other. When it came time for shooting [the sex scene], because Luca made me feel so comfortable in front of his lens, it just felt like another scene."
“Timothée is very generous and playful on set," Garrel said. "It’s paradise to work with him. We spent a lot of time together because of the story between our two characters. But I didn’t realize on set how incredible it was going [to look] in the movie. We were only focused on what we had to play, what we had to do, and he’s so kind and we were really close. It was really a party. We were together all the time — Luca is so close to his Italian crew, and he organized a lot of dinners, and we hung out late at night together in this tiny town."
Elio and Marzia's relationship became accidentally controversial earlier this month when Sony UK released a poster of the movie featuring Chalamet and Garrel, superimposed with a quote about romance. Twitter accused the studio of straight-washing the film, a practice that's still unfortunately used to sell stories that could be deemed "non-mainstream." To imply that Elio and Marzia are the main love interests in the film is, of course, false. But their interactions still carry their own weight. Guadagnino has even expressed his potential desire for sequels, one of which could explore what becomes of Elio and Marzia's friendship down the line. Just like Elio and Oliver's story of an agonizing first love, theirs is a relationship that is deeply relatable.
"I'm 26," she said," and I've had a first love," Garrel said. "Obviously this movie hits home in that aspect. It wakes something within you, and it soothes you, and it's also a little shocking because it brings you back to that moment. But it's probably the only time in your life that you'll have that back and forth of sadness and madness."
Elio's relationship with Marzia, on the other hand, is more measured, and therefore, more timeless. "I think that really quickly, Marzia sees the attraction of Elio for Oliver, but she doesn’t care because she loves him so much," Garrel explained. "Her feelings for him exceed everything. I think that she cares about him more than her own happiness. She’s really protective with him. Maybe that’s why at the end, their relationship as friends is not broken.”
Call Me By Your Name hits theaters November 24.
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