Set in the northern Italian town of the director’s own childhood, Call Me By Your Name is a slow melt into a ravishing romance that deserves to be remembered long after the buzz of this awards season fades.
Luca Guadagnino’s films (most notably I Am Love and last year’s A Bigger Splash) are always steeped in a high saturation of beauty—a sensory overload most often centered around the lackadaisical lives of the bourgeois intellectual elite. But where his other films sometimes get stuck in the facade of this lifestyle, Call Me By Your Name uses it only as a temporary safe haven, an isolated zone where two young men can delve into their own developing sexuality without the afflictions or judgements of the outside world.
Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is a multilingual seventeen-year-old summering with his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and German-Italian translator mother (Amira Casar) in their inherited dreamy Italian villa. Each summer, for six weeks, Professor Perlman invites an American student over to assist him with his Greco-Roman archeological research. When this year’s intern, Oliver (Armie Hammer), arrives, the whole town seems to instantly fall in love with his chiseled jawline and carefree attitude. Everyone, that is, except for Elio, who continues to walk around with his headphones on, his face buried in his notebooks composing music.
Unlike the 2007 novel by André Aciman on which the film is based, Guadagnino chooses to withhold the full scale of the inevitable love affair for as long as possible, building the film’s kaleidoscopic tension through the subtle interplay of dialogue and carefully chosen camera framing.
In one scene Elio and Oliver bike into town and park in front of a WWI monument memorializing one of the deadliest battles in European history. The two separate, each walking slowly in different directions around the memorial as Oliver says he’s impressed by how much Elio knows about everything. The camera stays behind Elio as he stares up at the statue—or maybe past it to look at Oliver— “not about the things that matter,” Elio says. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying,” Oliver replies. Between their unspoken words is a gaping space where thousands of men had died.
In another scene the professor takes them both on a trip to an archaeological site where his colleagues are unearthing an ancient bronze sculpture from the depths of a lake. The camera shows the ropes around the decaying bronze body as it is pulled to the surface of the water, then slowly onto land. Both Elio and Oliver thrum with energy as they take turns running their hands over the priceless artifact, and Guadagnino asks us to see the interconnectivity of the moment between them and the ancient lineage lying at their feet. Back at the house Professor Perlman flips through slides of other sculptures as Oliver sits, quietly taking notes. “It’s as if they are daring you to desire them,” he says almost to himself.
The film is built out countless moments such as these, driven by powerful performances by both Hammer and newcomer Chalamet (also in this year’s Lady Bird), as they struggle to understand what is at play inside of them. We watch Elio and Oliver continuously oscillate between desire and confusion, passion and fear—moments of insecurity and overconfidence. This is less a film about coming out as it is about the ravaging effects of first love, and the decimate hole that passion leaves in its wake.
I saw the film at my local theater, and when the credits of the film finished rolling and the theater lights came on, I was amazed, but not surprised that most of the audience was still sitting in their seats, overwhelmed and unready to return to their day. This is a film that should not be missed.