'Call Me by Your Name'
‘Call Me by Your Name’ is a very specific story about a very specific type of romance from a very specific time and place. Yet like so many of the best films (or even the best stories, full stop), by making something so unapologetically specific, the movie feels universal. It’s a love story, but not just any love story. It’s that first love story we all have, the type that sneaks up through butterflies deep down inside, explodes into the real world, and changes everyone involved forever.
Timothée Chalamet plays Elio, a teen music prodigy spending a summer in rural Italy with his academic parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). He’s not exactly a struggling kid in hard-luck times. He has a summer filled with sun, swimming, mounds of gorgeous food, esoteric conversations, stacks of books, and flirting with local girls. Then things get interesting. You see, every summer, Elio’s father brings on a grad student to work with him in the European paradise. This year, that grad student is Oliver (Armie Hammer, with all the erudite hunkiness that implies). Elio and Oliver essentially become roommates by sharing a bathroom. At first, their flirtations are cautious and subtle. At the same time, the movie obviously wouldn’t exist if things stayed simmering.
The script for this film (based on a novel by André Aciman) comes from James Ivory, a man who spent the 1990s specializing in a particular brand of British repression that kept emotions quiet and limited action to brooding. While cackling tension between Elio and Oliver dominates the film for quite a while, subtle flirtations carry the characters for days. Feelings are kept repressed or refocused on other pursuits. Thankfully, the movie isn’t just a feature-length tease of unrequited emotions. That’d be exhausting and anticlimactic. More importantly, director Luca Guadagnino simply wouldn’t allow it.
In his previous features ‘I Am Love’ and ‘A Bigger Splash’, Guadagnino established a unique directorial voice. His style is sumptuous and sensual. Emotions are exaggerated and emphasized through his flowing camera moves, expressive art direction and costumes, and blindingly vibrant color palette. He makes movies that glow off the screen in ways that make an emotional impact. However, unlike so many filmmakers focused on visuals and surface, Guadagnino’s films are also character studies. His expressive filmmaking just brings out the inner emotions of his characters. Admittedly, in the past his pretty surfaces have outweighed his stories, but in ‘Call Me by Your Name’, Guadagnino has found a story moving and honest enough to enhance the style. It’s easy to be hypnotized by the film as the director and his remarkable cast explore the experience of first love viscerally and truthfully.
The young Chalamet and perpetually-breaking-out Hammer are a perfect pair at the center. Hammer does his chizzled intellectual routine, finding a soft spot between hunky and dorky, and working the fantasy while still grounding the role. He’s a charmer, while Chalamet is both an unformed lump of clay and wise beyond his years, primed to fall hard. Their dance is sweet and tense and honest and ultimately passionate. To watch Elio discover himself and Oliver unlock a lost quarter is to fall for the characters along with them. Knowing that the dalliance has a built-in expiration date is as heartbreaking as it is exciting. The summer can’t last forever, even if it’s painfully clear these two characters will never be the same after this moving, funny, sweet, and devastating experience plays out. It’s a beautiful dance between two remarkable actors and Guadagnino extends that dance to his cameras in unforgettable ways.
As a cinematic love story, ‘Call Me by Your Name’ is as moving and beautiful as any film in at least a decade, and also has a lot more going on than that. While the movie has so many unforgettable funny, romantic and sexy sequences to sizzle up the screen (just wait until you see what happens with a peach), the most moving depiction of love doesn’t involve sex or romance at all. It’s a monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg delivered from father to son, filled with such remarkable empathy and tragic unspoken backstory that it elevates and transforms the entire film by the time the actor is done.
This is a potent tale of first love, but given that it’s a gay love affair set in the early 1980s, things are more complicated than they seem. Guadagnino and Ivory are wise and ambitious enough to explore the wrinkles and pains of that along with the joys. ‘Call Me by Your Name’ has quite a bit going on, even though the film is direct and linear enough to make an impact without considering any implications beneath the surface. It feels like a breakout for Luca Guadagnino, confirming all the talents he’s hinted at before in a more polished and considered package. The fact that his next project is something as radically different and insane as ‘Suspiria’ bodes well both for that odd remake and Guadagnino’s career. This guy is willing to take risks and go places. It’ll be exciting to see where he goes next.