The importance of the title Call Me By Your Name comes rather late into Luca Guadagnino’s film, long after the narrative and sexual tension between its two leads has been established. It emerges as a phrase spoken at a moment of shared desire and risk, when one lover expresses something almost more powerful than love, and hopes that the other will be welcoming. New lovers Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chatalet), exploring their feelings, call each other by their own names, and this verbal exchange of appellation brings them closer together, somehow invigorating their intimacy via an unconditional acceptance. This exchange also recalls their arrangement in the home, Elio having moved into an adjacent room as his father requested him to leave his bedroom their visitor. The two men are brought together not as equals, but their divide is clearly dismantled by their declaration of familiarity. The film, concerned with a group of beautiful people who are living exquisitely affluent lives —which has become typical of Guadagnino’s work—traces the lives of these two men amongst them. Its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival seemed an incongruous event, as refined as it is amidst a festival slate of typically indie films, thus it was fitting that Sony Pictures Classics bought the US theatrical rights prior to the festival’s commencement. No doubt, demand for this film will be great.
Set in Lombardy in 1983, where the Perlman family live in a beautiful seventeenth century palazzo home, Call Me By Your Name focuses on 24-year-old Oliver, the present year’s intern invited by Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) for a summer of work, research and vacation. Elio’s father and mother Annella (Amira Cesar) are loving and understanding parents, depicted as naturally warm and yet not immune to the gentle bickering that is becoming of a close family. Walking amongst ancient buildings and sun-drenched meadows, the Perlman family and their friends speak a transient combination of English, French and Italian. Thus Call Me By Your Name becomes, after his most recent international successes I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, another Guadagnino film distinctly concerned with the cinematic evocation of summer, of cosmopolitan delight, of warmth and light and the feeling of comfort that comes with these things. The warm air, bright sunlight, refreshing water of local lakes and palatial swimming holes all come alive in the director’s embrace, as these sensuous elements did in his earlier films. Close-up framings of peach orchards, stretches of grass, surfaces of water, generate a haptic texture, particularly when woven throughout the classical blocking and wide shots that define much of the rest of the film.While the characters’ time together is finite, and this knowledge is a weight over the entire film, the framing serves to suggest their immersion in the summer place.
With last year’s A Bigger Splash having one of the best opening title sequences of 2016, Guadagnino is again putting himself forward as a contender with his title design. The film opens simply with close-ups of the face and torso of an ancient Greco-Roman sculpture, cracked and worn but clearly a giant of her time. This ancient slate is coloured with flashy, cursive lines as credit text in bright colours appears, dissonant but not disharmonious, which suggests that a declared respect for tradition will be brightened with some more playful contours. The sculpture’s significance comes later too, on one of Mr. Perlman’s archeological expeditions, as she is brought up from the bottom of a beautiful ocean plateau. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, known for creating slow, meditative cinematic moments with Apichatpong Weerasethakul in films such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Blissfully Yours, displays the same characteristic control over its visual and sensory subject matter. Stylistically, this film is absolutely worthy of its grand romantic narrative.
Adapted from a 2007 novel by André Aciman, the screenplay—written by Guadagnino, editor Walter Fasano, and James Ivory—shares something of the slow desperation and unspoken desire of The Remains of the Day, the 1993 Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation directed by Ivory. The emotional orbits of each film are not dissimilar, considering the mutual understanding between two parties and a heartbreak almost too mundane to bear, but at a certain narrative point Call Me By Your Name takes a different direction, introducing distinctly personal growth. Witnessing this sensitive character development is one of the pleasures of the film. On screen, Hammer lives and breathes Oliver, who is an extremely complex character to read and to understand, seeming both flippant and contemplative. In a gesture as minute as the flicker of his eyes or the softening of creases around the mouth, Hammer captures Oliver’s confidence and his privilege as a young man navigating his way through youth, who is unafraid to express his vulnerability. Yet it is Chalamet, as the seventeen-year-old Elio, who gives a truly outstanding performance here; outstanding in that his presence is very ordinary, very modest, and with only slight alterations of body and facial expression, he can convey a vast range of impressions about his world. He plays piano gorgeously and riffs on the modes of composers, he reads, transcribes music and fills his conversation with references to philosophy, art and classical literature. He is in every way an intellectual equal to the scholarly Oliver, who says to him, “Is there nothing you don’t know?” The relevance here is that there is; Elio yearns for experiences in life and love.
At first, Elio’s fascination with Oliver seems as though it might not be romantic attraction but a sort of jealous desire to be him, to have Oliver’s confidence. Watching, mesmerised, as Oliver dances with a woman at an outdoor nightclub—the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” pointedly serving as the soundtrack to the moment—Elio seems to wish he had the same dancing ability. After he notices Oliver’s thin gold chain bearing a Star of David pendant, Elio mentions that he also has one, and he begins to wear it. Whether it is out of a desire to be like Oliver, or from an encouragement that to bear his Jewishness was not taboo (“My mother says we are Jews of discretion,” Elio declares), the notion of self-acceptance is clear. Their sexual tension is understated, too, in their coy touches and in the glances between Oliver and Elio that are full of desire, but often inflected with a warm insolence, as though both teenager and adult are engaging in a childish and naïve flirting. Neither man knows whether to pursue consummation of his feelings, and Call Me By Your Name spends a long time focusing on the relationship between two people who are at once getting to know each other, and at the same time shying behind an uncertainty of how to do so. One of the many beautiful things about this film, and definitely a cornerstone of its narrative and emotional poise, is Oliver’s urbanity, particular perhaps to a type of Jew from New England, that is visibly shaken when he navigates his feelings for Elio. A quote read from Marguerite of Navarre’s The Heptaméron, “Is it better to speak or to die,” is returned to by several characters and has a searing thematic resonance in the film. If it sounds like this could be too heavy-handed, it is not in Guadagnino’s skilled hands.
Sufjan Stevens, a lyricist whose song work is defined by its literary influences and thematic focus, provides two songs for the soundtrack that offer a choral commentary. These songs are interwoven with a selection of classical music, both within the story as played by characters, and as composed soundtrack that includes work by John Adams. This music accompanies significant events, but also composed shots of household sundries, like wet bathers in the sun, providing the mundane with a sense of romance and grandeur. A commonly quoted note of praise for Aciman is that he is, “an acute grammarian of desire,” and this is absolutely sustained in Guadagnino’s film.
Along with Mike Mills’ upcoming 20th Century Women, Call Me By Your Name is one of the most honest reflections of human behaviour I have seen in years. Characters reach mutual understandings, sometimes with glances, sometimes with long discussions, sometimes with silences. Both Elio and Oliver begin their summer in Italy engaging in flirtations and sexual encounters with women, and so their discovery of each other becomes more than a discovery of love shared with another, but more deeply, of themselves. This is not simply a story of an introvert and an extrovert finding love with one another, but a portrait of desire, told with Guadagnino’s unique and detailed attention to place.