In my experience, the most powerful cinematic romances are those that sweep the audience along, implicating the viewers as a third party of sorts in the ardour depicted on screen. By this metric, ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a stunning achievement, capturing the innocence and force of first love in a powerfully absorbing narrative. Thanks to Luca Guadagnino’s sensitive direction, sensuous imagery and awards-calibre performances are marshalled into one of the best films of the year.
The year is 1983. 17-year-old Jewish American Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends his summer living with his parents in their stunning, northern Italian villa. He spends his days riding his bike to local swimming spots, cruising around nearby towns with his friends, devouring book after book, and engaging with his parents’ frequent guests. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor, has an annual tradition of inviting American students to spend six weeks with them, assisting him with his research. This year, his guest is Oliver (Armie Hammer). As family tradition also dictates, Oliver takes Elio’s bedroom for the course of his stay, while Elio must move to a smaller room.
Over the course of Oliver’s stay, he and Elio fall in love. The pair share a whirlwind romance that is constantly haunted by the short duration of the older man’s visit, and the need to hide their passions from others. The screenplay, adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame) from André Aciman’s novel of the same name, has a lovely, easy pace that captures the meandering rhythm of summers past. As Elio and Oliver’s relationship evolves, there are standout moments of significant progress (the first admission of attraction, their first kiss), yet it never feels dramatized. Instead, the emotions that accompany these moments are closely tied to Elio’s own, hyper-realistic perception of events. Each touch is charged with attraction, every small moment of neglect is a dagger to the heart. Even Elio’s on-off fling with local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel, wonderful) is laden with youthful resonance, even if in Elio’s perception it cannot hold a candle to the desire he feels for Oliver.
The northern Italian scenery and architecture through which Elio guides Oliver are as important to the film as the characters, gorgeously captured by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Sunlight seems to bleed into each shot, washing everything through a golden haze of recollection and warmth. The 1980s summer fashions reveal an excess of skin, and Guadagnino loads every glance of the camera with the eroticism of Elio’s own gaze. Mukdeeprom has the characters constantly crowding one another in the frames, their closeness indicative of developing intimacy and evoking the stifling proximity of holidays spent in the company of strangers. A deafening chorus of insects provides background to every interaction, and gave me more than a few reminders of our Australian summer.
Indeed, despite the particularity of the Italian setting, there is something intrinsically universal about the narrative. For the young protagonist, first love is emotionally electrifying, and the taboo that he cannot help but attach to his own bisexuality is matched by Guadagnino’s powerfully subversive craft. Their relationship crackles with intimacy, but it is defined more by their awkward fumbling and gentle embarrassment than the results of their sexual encounters. It’s only M-rated, however it is far more sensual and honest than anything contained in the ‘Fifty Shades’ films, and thus feels vastly more adult.
As such, Guadagnino requires a great deal from his Elio, and Chalamet delivers above and beyond. Elio is a talented polyglot, conversing in English, French and Italian, a skilful pianist and guitar player, an insatiable reader, forward yet reserved, intense yet coolly so, a mess of contradictions that in his hands feels wholly fathomable. As more and more of Elio’s environment is revealed (his upbringing in a house of intellectuals, his group of local friends), Chalamet’s performance appears more lived than acted, a perfect product of the film around him. One character describes cinema as ‘a mirror of reality’, and Chalamet truly holds up a mirror to the eagerness and naivety of youth in his star-making turn.
Chalamet and Hammer share an undeniable chemistry, which reinforces the core thrust of the narrative. Indeed, Guadagnino’s film could only ever be as good as his two leads; luckily for him, both are exceptional. Hammer’s characterisation is earmarked from the moment he wolfs down a soft-boiled egg at his first breakfast with the family, warning them not to offer him another – ‘Once I get started, I won’t be able to stop.’ This insatiability feeds into his relationship with Chalamet, an attraction which neither seems to be able to control. Their playful interactions become more and more loaded, with Hammer taking the dominant role, impressing his experience and intelligence into each bout of repartee. Dancing wildly at a local disco for a crowd of onlookers, he is both object of desire yet eminently in control. Hammer hasn’t had a role like it since playing the Winklevoss twins in ‘The Social Network’, and he makes the most of the complex part given to him.
Elio’s parents are also wonderfully performed. His mother Annella is played by Amira Casar, who imbues her role with an incredible tenderness. Opposite her, Michael Stuhlbarg delivers one of his best performances of his career, long-defined by scene-stealing supporting roles. ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is no exception, with Stuhlbarg’s patriarch delivering a closing monologue that threatens to walk away with the entire film, beautifully encapsulating the journey upon which Elio and Oliver have embarked. A couple of terrific songs contributed by American folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, which Guadagnino layers through montages, also manage to capture the spirit of the film in a way that few original songs in recent memory ever have.
Given the themes that they share (they’re both coming-of-age stories and gay romances) and their prominent positions in their respective awards races, perhaps comparisons between ‘Call Me By Your Name’ and ‘Moonlight’ were inevitable. Indeed, a gentleman in my screening turned to his partner half an hour into the film and announced in a stage whisper, ‘I actually prefer ‘Moonlight’’. I would disagree with this anonymous member of the public; I found ‘Call Me By Your Name’ to be far more moving and evocative. I accept that the filmmakers behind ‘Moonlight’ were seeking to elucidate a highly particular experience, but Guadagnino’s feature paints a similarly unique narrative using strokes of familiar emotions. As the title hints, the characters eventually call one another by their own name. It is fitting then, that the masterful displays of craft and performance left me wholly identifying with the two leads, so wrapped up in their short affair that I could scarcely bear to leave the cinema.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting | Uploaded by: Mary Jennings