Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: James Ivory
As I was watching Call Me by Your Name, an Oscar winning film that has been almost universally lauded as a landmark of LGBT cinema, one of the things that struck me the most was how far the movie transcended the same-sex quality of its love story. The fact that the two lovers are men is significant and plays an important role in defining their relationship, but the story is ultimately a coming-of-age romance and that simple distinction allowed for a movie that defied what I’ve come to expect from gay cinema. For example, as this film progressed I spent a good deal of time anticipating the obstacle that would inevitably conspire to drive the two lovers apart. Maybe it would come in the form of disapproving parents, a spurned and jealous ex-girlfriend, or maybe an intolerant culture and community. But that never happens, because that’s not what this movie is about. Call Me by Your Name is really a story about self-discovery, sexual awakening, and first love.
Another way that this film subverts expectations is that it doesn’t really have a plot. The movie progresses at a leisurely pace that Guadagnino advances bit by bit with the meticulous patience of a sculptor as it transitions between scenes without appearing to drive itself along any clear narrative line. There is no tangible objective, journey, or force pushing things along, the film simply moves from moment to moment and lets them play out in their own time. The scenes more or less blend into one another the same way that long summer days often do and the cuts between them are motivated more by emotion than they are by events. The movie is set in the summer of 1983 in an idyllic, eternally sunny region of northern Italy and mainly follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). Elio often finds himself bored by the summer and tends to spend his days reading, playing the piano, and picking fruit. He lives with his Jewish-American father (Michael Stulhbarg), a professor of archaeology, and Italian mother (Amira Casar), a translator, in their country home. Despite his youth, Elio is well-read and a musical prodigy and possesses an intellect and wit beyond his years. He is also awkward and insecure, but has learnt to hide his anxieties behind a mask of sophistication.
Every year his father invites a student to spend the summer with their family to assist him with his academic research. This year he invites 24-year-old American doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver is tall, handsome, confident, and charming; he is everything that Elio isn’t (or doesn’t believe himself to be). Oliver also has a largely carefree personality. He is effortlessly likeable and attractive to many of the Perlmans’ friends and he has a typically American habit of abruptly ending conversations and leaving the dinner table with a nonchalant, “Later”. He and Elio, finding that their personalities somewhat clash and that they haven’t got much in common, are initially prickly towards one another. Nevertheless they are drawn to each other: testing each other out, pushing out against one another, and wondering what the other thinks of them. Elio at first doesn’t know what to make of Oliver with his casual demeanour and may not even realise at first that what they are doing is flirting. There are looks and caresses that he doesn’t know how to interpret and feelings that he seems reluctant to confront. Over time however Elio does become acutely aware of his attraction to Oliver, thinking of him while he masturbates and sneaking into him room to smell his clothes. Before long Elio and Oliver confess their feelings to each other and embark on a sexual relationship for the remainder of the summer.
The chemistry that Chalamet and Hammer share is electrifying. With the help of Guadagnino’s direction, the two are able to convey a clear attraction that grows and develops over time without ever actually speaking about it until around an hour in. It’s in the way that Oliver’s touch triggers a sensation throughout Elio’s entire body. It’s in the tension that emerges between them as they chat by the pool or on their way into town, as in one scene where Elio relates a night-time rendezvous with his (sort of) girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) in order to gauge Oliver’s reaction. It’s in their exchanged glances and expressions. When we see Oliver with Elio, the way that he looks and composes himself suggests that the 24-year-old understands what is happening better than the 17-year-old, but is hesitant to do anything about because of some unspoken taboo (in this case the taboo has less to do with being attracted to a young man than it does with being attracted to an inexperienced 17-year-old virgin). When they do finally speak openly about the attraction and start acting on it, it is the culmination of all the pent-up emotions they’ve felt to this point and it feels organic and earned.
The love they share is tender and intimate and there is an agonising beauty to the way that these two characters, who have both kept a part of their true selves hidden from even the most important people in their lives, are able to be truly open and free when they are alone together. This is best encapsulated in the moment that gives the film its name when Oliver lies in bed with Elio, looks deeply into his eyes, and says, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine”. It is a bittersweet love they share, not only because they have to keep it a secret, but also because they both realise that it cannot last. Again, this isn’t something either of them says out loud, it’s something that they just feel and we feel it as well in the long takes and the moments of silence. It is a romance that makes itself all the more intensely felt to the viewer because Guadagnino and Ivory do not shy away from showing Elio and Oliver in their most erotic and vulnerable moments, most notably in the film’s controversial and remarkable peach scene.
The beauty of it all is complemented perfectly by the setting and the way it is shot; seldom a close-up is used in this film because Guadagnino wants us to appreciate the scenery and its relation to the characters. The images he and cinematographer Mukdeeprom create are utterly sensual. The sound of leaves gently rustling in the breeze, the look of the water and sweat on everybody’s bare bodies, the warm reds, oranges, and yellows of the Italian sun; all of these are captured with such realness and intensity that it’s almost like we’re actually there. It manages to look sublime and picturesque without also looking artificial. The sights, sounds, tastes, odours, and textures, they all feel tactile, which in turn combats any sense of idealisation or inauthenticity. What we are essentially watching is a memory of a summer long since past and what we see is supposed to be an embellishment of that time, but not to the point that everything seems too perfect. This is a memory that evokes as many feelings of pleasure as it does pain and sadness, and the film’s visual style matches that perfectly.
The romance does ultimately reach an end, as it must, and it is as heartbreaking and poignant an end as one could imagine. When it all seems like it might be too much for Elio, his father reaches out to him with an exquisite monologue that Stuhlbarg delivers eloquently and heartrendingly. The sentiments he shares with his son are as beautiful as anything else we’ve seen or heard in this film and could have been the ideal way to conclude the story if not for the epilogue that follows. The final image we see of Elio is allowed to linger for several minutes as the credits roll and it allows for a full summation of all the emotions that have been felt by him throughout, the deep effect that whole summer has had on him, and the impact his relationship with Oliver has had on the man he will one day become. Call Me by Your Name is an exceptionally beautiful portrayal of love and growth and is one of the most profound and moving films of 2017.