Call Me by Your Name, dir. Luca Guadagnino│ Summertime, somewhere in Northern Italy. The sun is high and apricots are ripe. The elderly cook is back to make her freshest meals, mom is reading, dad researching his Greek statues. The days are long for 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and spent listening to and transcribing classical music, sunbathing or swimming. Elio’s peaceful ennui at his Italian holiday home, together with his childish snarky attitude, give him airs of Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf from Anthony Minghella’s similarly Italian summer-set The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). Yet Elio’s search for pleasure in this landscape is a lot more meaningful and life-affirming than Dickie’s selfish womanizing and squandering of his father’s fortune. While Minghella found in the luxurious setting a perfect metaphor for the deceptiveness of beauty, Luca Guadagnino goes in the opposite direction and takes the simultaneously calming and energising environment as the ideal framing for an exhilarating journey of almost secret sensual self-discovery.
Placing Elio in this peaceful environment allows Guadagnino to patiently observe the young man at his most relaxed and natural. Dropping a few notes at the piano before walking up to his room for a rest, Elio is exploring his surroundings like a fish in an aquarium, never stopping in one place for too long. Besides giving far niente one of its most convincing and enticing cinematic depictions, Guadagnino relies on this atmosphere as a framework for that strange state typical of the teenage years: when desires we don’t yet understand start torturing us. Although they may be part of our very bodies and animate them intensely, they still feel somewhat foreign to us. This struggle translates into Elio’s constant agitation and impulsiveness. All of a sudden, he might jump on his mother to give her a big kiss, looking for a more intense sensation than casual motherly affection, or plunge into the pool without warning. He may even lose his virginity with Marzia (Esther Garrel), and find with surprise the beginning of an answer: “it feels so good!” he exclaims. Guadagnino’s camera helps the expression of this restless body, shooting it in either intimate close-ups or observant long shots as it walks, runs, twirls and slides aimlessly.
Soon enough, another body becomes the subject of Guadagnino’s and Elio’s gaze: the statuesque Oliver (Armie Hammer), visiting to help Elio’s father in his research. The handsome young man is also energetic and immediately catches the boy’s eye, slowly becoming the new target for his restlessness and without Elio even realising. Already, the film becomes quietly homoerotic -quietly, because in 1983, even in the middle of nowhere, homosexuality cannot show itself. One of the characters asks in a scene, quoting The Heptameron, “is it better to speak, or to die?” Unable to fully express their desires, Elio and Oliver nonetheless find in Guadagnino a spokesperson for their passion. Despite not having any explicit gay sex scenes, Call Me By Your Name indeed overflows with sensuality. The bright colours of the cinematography together with the strangely canted angles and roaming camera movements translate the lust for life boiling under the surface between Elio and Oliver. This is the kind of rare film in which shots can communicate so perfectly the impassioned state of mind of the characters that they remain engraved in your memory long after the end credits. Guadagnino proves a master of the visual language of love and unspoken desire, using all the tools at his disposition –framing, settings, actors and music- with an honesty that remains respectful of his protagonists.
The actors themselves make this yearning palpable in the way they interact with each other, and the director must too be recognised for his appreciation of gestures. When their relationship is still distant and friendly at best, Elio’s and Oliver’s movements are sharp and charged with a strange hostility. Each seems to be challenging the other to notice him, all the while feeling frustrated by the need to remain discreet in case the forbidden attraction were not mutual. While this is more obvious in Elio’s behaviour since he’s only just discovering his sexuality, Oliver too is evidently unsure of himself. Slowly but surely, his habit of checking out of a situation with a brisk “later!” starts to feel like an attempt to cover up for certain overreaching gestures towards Elio: after unexpectedly massaging the boy’s neck for a few intense seconds, his even more surprising departure is disturbing and frustrating. And as Elio’s sentiments for the American also reveal themselves with the slowness of a hot afternoon, his distaste for this tic makes increasingly more sense: despite everything, he wishes Oliver were more straightforward about his feelings.
At long last, however, the boys find themselves alone and Elio makes the first move in a scene of intense yet delicate sensuality. Only a few words are spoken, but the camera turns and lingers, suspended, just like Elio, to Oliver’s lips. It is only once in total intimacy that they finally embrace. This usually chaste movement becomes the catalyst for all their as yet restrained feelings. More than any kiss -or word- this grasp is the most voluptuous and sensory of all the gestures they share throughout the film: their arms hold on tightly as if they were trying to feel each other’s closeness completely, with their entire being, and for as long as possible. The actors’ commitment to their characters is nowhere more evident and touching as they hide their faces into each other’s necks with a tenderness almost too intimate for us to see. For indeed, Guadagnino understands how exceptional these moments are for his characters. His patient and never overly intrusive camera makes the spectator almost feel these caresses herself, better than any word could.
If Call Me By Your Name begins as a great coming-of-age story, it soon reveals its heart to be even bigger. The camera starts adopting Oliver’s point of view once he’s made clear that Elio’s feelings are mutual: unexpectedly but to heartbreaking effect, the American visitor’s face becomes a new focus for the camera, and even though he still cannot speak his mind, his expressions show how much he cares for the boy. More than an enabler for Elio’s sexual awakening, Oliver is a full-blown character -and possibly the greatest love of his life. And yet, after his departure, all his unspoken signs of affection still leave a doubt on Elio’s mind: it would still be better to speak. The words he so desperately needs to hear will however come from an unexpected place: just as Oliver is his own person, Elio’s bubbly father reveals himself to be more than a side joke or a cliché. Michael Stuhlbarg’s casting in this role turns from surprising to ingenious when his character consoles his son near the film’s ending. Far from the overbearing and clueless father typical of stories of forbidden love, he shows great understanding and compassion, which finishes to make one’s heart swell with a combination of melancholy and gratitude. “Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi,” he quotes beautifully to tell Elio that what he had with Oliver was a unique story that doesn’t need justifying.
Throughout the film, the hard-hitting sun complimented the beauty of sensuous bodies, yet its warmth felt like poor consolation for the silence forced upon them. In the final long take, this frustrating dichotomy is somewhat reversed to reiterate the heartwarming message from Elio’s father. It is now winter and Elio is hiding his tears, yet his face is luminous as he stares into the fireplace. And soon enough, to the patient spectator, Elio’s pain will transform into a sweet melancholy as the flames warm his traits like the sun used to. In the cold of winter, long separated from Oliver, he looks up to the camera and smiles. He still can’t speak of the beautiful love he’s been lucky to experience, but he knows that Guadagnino has told his story to the audience -using not words, but the language of cinema. ■
Call Me by Your Name│ Director: Luca Guadagnino│ Screenplay: James Ivory, Luca Guadagnino, Walter Fasano│ Camera: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom│ Editing: Walter Fasano│ Music: │ Cast: │ Producer: Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, Rodrigo Teixeira, Marco Morabito, James Ivory, Howard Rosenman│ Production Company: Frenesy / La Cinéfacture│Country: Italy / France│ Year: 2017│ Running Time: 130 min.│ International Sales: Memento Films International│ Festival: Berlin IFF 2017│