“If you only knew how little I really know about the things that matter.”
Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age story as much as it’s a coming-out story, exploring the excitement, the anxiety, the heartbreak, and the joy of a 17-year-old boy’s first love as he forms a relationship with an older man. Director Luca Guadagnino has constructed an extraordinarily tactile film – I could feel the warmth of the Italian sun, the coolness of the water, and every slight brush of fingers against skin as the characters reach for stolen touches from each other. More than that, Guadagnino had me feeling the emotions felt by the characters as if they were my own, so that by the end of the film I felt as if I’d been through as life-changing and unforgettable experience as Elio.
Luca Guadagnino’s previous film, A Bigger Splash, was less concerned with narrative and more a film about being taken away by the European setting and complex psychology of the characters. While based on James Ivory’s novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name is similarly focused on in-the-moment experiences and emotions, with the Northern Italy setting almost as vital a character to the film as the two leads. Emerging young actor Timothée Chalamet is a practical wunderkind for how much he brings to the role of Elio – playing complex musical pieces on piano and guitar, speaking English, French, and Italian, and delivering a performance that develops from repressed and confused to emotionally raw as he learns to acknowledge hidden parts of himself. Elio is the son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), spending his time over the summer reading, transcribing music, and awkwardly flirting with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel). When his father brings over an American graduate student, Oliver, to stay with them over the holidays, Elio and Oliver form a hesitant relationship that evolves into something much deeper. While Armie Hammer had his break-through role in 2010’s The Social Network as both of the Winklevoss twins, he’s been struggling to find a role that suits him since – with some colossal misfires along the way (The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E marking two franchises he was attached to that are unlikely to get any further off the ground). Call Me By Your Name finally allows him to deliver on the potential displayed in Social Network. As Oliver he’s charming, confident, a little arrogant, and immensely attractive. The romance between Oliver and the much younger inexperienced Elio had the potential to be uncomfortable, but Hammer brings to it a nervous confliction and innocent tenderness that, combined with the unrestrained energy between the two when they’re together, makes the affair feel genuine and supportive for both.
Call Me By Your Name is a slow, measured film, but the pace is never boring or lagging. The novel is set in the 1980s but there’s an almost timeless, classical sense to the picture – the Italian setting looks as if it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years while the themes of love, desire, and loss are so universal they could take place at any point. Even Guadagnino’s direction echoes elements of the Italian New Wave while feeling fresh and alive. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is exceptionally bright and vivid, with the sun giving the characters and setting a warm golden shine, and at times he even allows the camera to drift out of focus as if to force the audience to get lost in the sensation and overall meaning of a scene rather than being caught up in the finer details. The largely piano-lead soundtrack by Sufjan Stevens acts as an auditory link into Elio’s mind, expressing his confinement, his desires, and his freedom as the story develops, as well as original songs by Stevens with such poetic lyrics that they almost fulfil the role of the missing narrator from the book. James Ivory’s screenplay is just as expressive and honest, with a monologue from Elio’s father towards the end that’s one of the finest summations of the value for love and heartbreak that I’ve ever seen, delivered with compassion and eloquence by Stuhlbarg.
This is a film easy to get absorbed by, a stunning and richly romantic experience that swept me away completely. When it finished I found the return to reality almost cruel, but Call Me By Your Name is a work of art that manages to leave you with memories and lessons of life and love that stay with you far beyond the doors of the cinema.