Call Me by Your Name ventures into a realm of romantic and sexual possibility in some sunny territory referred to only in the film as “somewhere in Italy.” Luca Guadagnino is a master of lavish and seductive tones but, guided by André Aciman’s source material, the Italian director unveils a sensitivity lacking in his previous flashier, more impersonal erotic fantasies. Forging a convincing romantic and sexual relationship between a precocious but still immature seventeen-year old and a charming academic, 24 years old, is no easy feat. Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory imposes a challenging scenario of modern love, a dubious concept fraught with ethical and psychological demands, and somehow manages to intelligently address both in a way that also satisfies the emotional core of the film.
Set in the 1980s, the film centres on a dalliance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 20-something Oliver (Armie Hammer) as the two fall passionately in love in the midst of one scorching Mediterranean summer. Luca Guadagnino explores the kind of everlasting love the most romance stories do—the love perhaps too fine to last, but too splendid to forget. Here the romance is confined in in last few weeks at the home of Elio’s parent’s, whose father invites his pupil from America to stay at their large, lavish home. Barely the indoorsy type, however, Oliver’s first few days he’s already making friends and notching romances in the surrounding community while, at the same time, attracting Elio’s attention. Throughout Oliver’s stay, Elio’s figure seems bound to the handsome American’s like a shadow.
Most of what transpires in the first half of Aciman’s novel is elucidated almost entirely through Elio’s thoughts—particularly his budding attraction for the tall and handsome American, Oliver—a manner of storytelling perfectly plausible in format of word and text, but totally inimical to the external, visual beauty of Guadagnino worlds.
Eschewing Elio’s thoughts from the film entirely, Guadagnino’s evocative storytelling allows the internal, hidden worlds of his character express themselves in the form of (i.e. Oliver stealing water from Elio’s hand, but Oliver hopes to steal Elio’s attention). In a story as emotionally complex as Call Me by Your Name—where a young teen’s feelings of inexpressible love becomes the center-point for numerous dramas—it was genuinely surprising to see how much gesture is preferred over words.
Guadagnino also takes every suggestiveness to a place of psychological realism. Through a dense, clever manipulation light and space—by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom—the family’s house becomes a manifestation of Elio’s private life—the shades of darkness in a guest room unveiling Elio’s inexpressible desire for Oliver, sleeping in the other room. A cold, quick glance at Oliver’s nakedness down the hall of Elio’s home suggest a sudden, sexual awareness. The villa comes to embody, in Call Me by Your Name, the sphere where Elio’s internalized passions and impulses fester, dormant.
Through Guadagnino’s elemental, frequently suggestive direction, even climate and geography seem to bend to the will of first love. The many trips Elio and Oliver take while trying to sweat off the summer heat, whether to town, to a riverbed or a pasture, are not just to places unexplored, but desires, lusts and romances uninvestigated. A sudden rainfall encloses Elio at home, an occurrence that instead of simply confining him becomes an opening for Elio to journey within himself, helping the young man become more intimately aware of his desires.
Gone from the emergence of new queer cinema are the days of juvenile teen sex farces. In Call Me by Your Name the idea of a young man’s developing sexuality (Elio’s in this case), along with the embarrassment and curiosity that accompanies it, isn’t treated with Hollywood’s typical ridicule (à la American Pie, Superbad). Here the humiliation and trials of sexuality (a peach, in this case) is given an elegance and titillation most filmmakers are afraid of exploring, or worse, filmmakers don’t believe exist.
The impressions of love are numerous and sometimes flat-out contradictory in Call Me by Your Name. From Elio’s point of view, affection, scorn, attraction and resentment go hand-in-hand in his attraction for Oliver. And as we discover through Elio’s intelligent and loving father (played with poise and sharpness by Michael Stuhlbarg), love is just as much about the pain of something that’s lost as it is the pleasure of something that’s found. Of course such an idea that “there cannot be good without bad” may find their place in Augustine philosophy or in Chinese duology, but in Call Me by Your Name it’s expressed simply, powerfully by Elio’s father, who tells his son—in the professor’s wisest teaching to a pupil—“Right now, there’s sorrow and pain. Don’t kill it.”
Call Me by Your Name ends on a shot of winter. The image of snow falling, fountains frozen over, and the general moods of golden sunshine and green grass, replaced with ice and frost emit an overwhelming feeling of something lost to time. But Guadagnino, with Mukdeeprom sensitive, transient images, capture a sublime final image of nostalgia—a close-up on a face flooded in tears. This illusorily and deceptively modest shot is actually the most fully conceived and complex in the film. The faint glow of the fireplace on Elio’s pale, white skin invoke a Proustian memory of one perfect summer in the dead of winter.
Luca Guadagnino has gone on to say that Call Me by Your Name isn’t really a “gay film,” which—without jumping to conclusions—is a comment that yields something optimistic and hopeful about the future of queer cinema. The films fully recognized by a mainstream audience thus far (Carol, Moonlight, etc.) have earned well-deserved praise for their powerful, utterly gorgeous portrayals of same-sex relationships. Call Me by Your Name representing less the “human rights” aspect of queer cinema and more, as Guadagnino puts it, “the beauty of the newborn idea of desire,” won’t need to guilt, shame or convince to win people over. Instead this coming-of-age romance resonates something more pervasive and relatable, a moment that escapes us and a feeling that imprisons us.