‘Call Me By Your Name’: a tale d’amore
Review — There is an effervescent joy that arises in the body when one witnesses a masterpiece of cinema unfold before their very eyes. It is an almost overwhelming sensation. Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” an adaptation of André Aciman’s debut novel of the same title, is a rare gem that evokes such emotions.
Based on a screenplay by Hollywood veteran James Ivory, “Call Me By Your Name” tells the story of Elio Perlman (the astonishing Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old spending the summer at his parents’ North Italian villa in 1983. The film follows the romance that develops between Elio and a 24-year-old man, Oliver (the perfectly stoic Armie Hammer), a visiting research assistant of Elio’s father, who is a professor. As the film progresses, we follow the romance as it slowly unfolds over a healthy 132-minute runtime.
Yes, the film is slow, but with good reason. Guadagnino seems to be utterly unconcerned about creating an unnecessarily smooth pace, composed of tidy cuts that occur immediately at the conclusion of conversations. He deliberately allows the single 35mm lens on which he captured the film to continuously linger, resulting in shots like ones that reveal the occasional fly crawling along Elio’s body. These small details inject an impeccable vividness and believability into the environment that Guadagnino creates and captures. Further, not only does the unbroken gaze of the lens perfectly evoke the endless feeling of the summer days Oliver and Elio spend together, but it also gives us the opportunity to spend time with the film’s characters and locations as we absorb the beautiful landscapes of Crema, Italy (captured by the lush cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) and observe Elio as he privately contemplates his decisions in silence. The experience of the movie is immersive and sensual. You don’t just watch “Call Me By Your Name” — you feel it: As the leaves on trees flutter before your eyes, you can almost feel a summer breeze on your neck; as the clear waters of Italy glisten on screen, you are tempted to jump into them; shots of the fruit trees in the Perlmans’ orchard provoke a craving to reach out and pick their fruits.
If there is one thing that becomes abundantly clear as the events of the film progress, it is that Guadagnino is wholly unconcerned with portraying the consummation of desire and, instead, lets his focus rest on the subject of desire itself. He strips his subjects bare but refuses to do so with the bodies of Elio and Oliver; about halfway through the film, when we reach the climactic moment of unity between the two characters, the camera drifts away to an open window and lingers as we simply hear Elio and Oliver in the act. It is a choice that has drawn some criticism: Some people have asserted that Guadagnino is perpetuating the overwhelming suppression of queer sexual expression in modern cinema. However, this choice also allows for something not commonly portrayed in queer cinema to burst through the seams: the emotional romance between two men — in this case, Elio and Oliver. Here, the lovers share an attraction for each other’s personalities that is far stronger than their lust after one anothers bodies. Other than their own apprehensions about pursuing each other, there is nothing keeping Elio and Oliver apart; at no point in the film does somebody tell them that they cannot be gay, nor does the couple demonstrate any instinct to hide. This absence is precisely what enables the film to avoid repeating the cinematic trope of translating gay romance into an exotic spectacle. Guadagnino’s decision to make the relationship between Oliver and Elio revolve around emotion, rather than the obvious fact that they are of the same gender, allows “Call Me By Your Name” to subvert the cliché of the forbidden gay love story, making for a universally relatable on-screen romance. Never before has a same-sex relationship been allowed to exist so passionately on film.
While the movie focuses heavily on Oliver and Elio’s relationship, there is a slew of minor characters that orbit around them: the groundskeepers of the Perlman’s villa, Marzia — a young woman with whom Oliver has a fling — and finally, Elio’s parents. They are all given a perfect amount of space to breathe and, as a result, are succinctly fleshed out. This fact, combined with the dedicated performances of the supporting cast who portray these characters, makes them surprisingly compelling, to the point that they almost match the allure of the film’s leads. They are all people who have stories to tell, but ones that we never hear — that is until one of the film’s final scenes in which Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) delivers a revelatory and moving monologue. It perfectly captures the film’s message and is among the greatest movie speeches in recent memory.
Two fine touches in the film are its contemporary costumes and its soundtrack, which is a collection of songs by Sufjan Stevens and a compilation of piano compositions. They play over the scenes of the movie with intensity, perfectly manipulating our emotions and pulling at our heartstrings.
With all that said, none of the aforementioned attributes of “Call Me By Your Name” are any match for the performances of its two leading men. Hammer is incredibly subtle in his portrayal of Oliver, leaving us feeling a curiosity and infatuation with his character that eerily matches the sentiments Elio feels for him. Chalamet gives an intelligent breakout performance with a startling level of nuance. He has the rare ability to perform complex emotions with an astounding level of effortlessness, which translates into rather beautiful simplicity. Combined, the performances of Hammer and Chalamet translate into a magnetic, unforgettable chemistry that propels an equally unforgettable film.
“Call Me By Your Name” is perfect. This reviewer could watch it on a loop for the foreseeable future, basking in it and swooning as he does so. It is, quite simply, beautiful.