Call Me by Your Name
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: James Ivory (screenplay), André Aciman (novel)
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar
Not everyone gets a young summer romance. Sometimes you look back a month, a year, a decade later and realize that you had one, and it was perfect, or as perfect as it could have been. When it’s over you might wonder why you wasted so much time fumbling around, doing an awkward dance around what you wanted to say or do. That dance is part of the beauty of it, though. If you’d been more practiced, more put together and guarded, it might not have happened at all.
It happens for Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy living with his parents at a sun-drenched villa “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983. It’s the kind of place where people come and go as they please; his parents always have different guests for dinner. Elio spends his days transcribing music, reading and flirting with girls. He’s a mass of contradictions, as teenagers tend to be; polite but sometimes condescending, hesitant with bursts of confidence. Chalamet imbues him with a lanky restlessness. It comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings.
Every summer, his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an academic studying the ancient culture of the area, has a different graduate student come and stay with them for six weeks as a kind of internship. They help him catalog different artifacts and work on their own research, but they also indulge in the long, rambling nights of drinking and dancing that seems to come naturally to the area. In the summer at the center of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, that student is Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Oliver, a chiseled, imposingly tall American in his 20s, arrives casually one afternoon. Elio and his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel) watch him shake hands and exchange awkward pleasantries with Elio’s parents from a second story window. He comes downstairs for an introduction, and to show Oliver to his room. (The summer graduate student takes over Elio’s room for their stay each year, and Elio uses a bedroom that’s connected to a shared bathroom). Oliver plops down on the bed and almost instantly falls asleep, exhausted from his travels. Elio lingers, smirking at the abrupt ending of their conversation.
This brief encounter sparks a connection between the two that builds gradually over the coming weeks. Bike rides to the nearby village turn into longer excursions as Elio looks for excuses to accompany Oliver. It’s easy to see why. Often decked out in colorful (very) short shorts and a loose, open button-down, Oliver is an object of desire not just to Elio but to Guadagnino and the audience as well.
The director and his invaluable lead actors portray the uncertainty the two young men feel both physically and verbally. He aims his camera at them head-on, often foregrounding one as he talks, reads research or plays the piano while the other watches in the distance. There are also key point-of-view shots, watching one of them from a distance before cutting to the other person watching, transfixed but uncertain why.
These shot set-ups show that they are performing for each other, whether they know it or not. The performative aspect of romance is familiar territory for Guadagnino. It’s something he explored with aggressive, rambunctious energy in last year’s A Bigger Splash, which focused on a professional performer, a rock star played by Tilda Swinton, caught in a tangled web of eroticism. Guadagnino’s approach to Call Me by Your Name is much more measured. The characters here are more delicate, and so are his images. Elio and Oliver’s eventual affair is the result of an evolving, undefined intimacy. Elio confessing his feelings as the two slowly circle a monument in town has a ring of awkward truth for people, like me, who came to terms with their queerness after years of not understanding it. He stumbles to express what he’s feeling because he’s unsure of what he’s feeling.
Moments like this in James Ivory’s screenplay, which was adapted from a novel by André Aciman, give the movie’s romance a ring of hard-won wisdom. Call Me by Your Name is a film about young love made from a mature distance. At times, Guadagnino seems almost reluctant to intrude on his characters. The first time Elio and Oliver have sex, he cuts away, returning to them entangled naked in bed, making eyes at each other at a much closer proximity than they have been. Some may take issue with that reluctance to portray gay sex, and that’s understandable. So few queer films get a mainstream release in the U.S., that that decision can seems like a cop out.
When asked if the movie was “shy about sex” in Vulture, Guadagnino responded:
There is sperm on the torso [of Oliver], which he wipes off! I don’t know. It is cheap voyeurism, I would say. Because I am a voyeur myself, I pride myself on a more dignified and sophisticated sense of voyeurism than a need to stare at other people’s sexes.
That answer will likely be unsatisfying to people who took issue with it in the first place, and it’s a debate that will continue. The conversation Elio and Oliver have after might have seemed more intimate, and had more power, if we’d gotten to see what preceded it. To me, though, the lack of explicit sex doesn’t otherwise deter from the hold this movie has. It gets so much right about attraction, about a short-term affair that will be frozen in time and replayed for the rest of its characters’ lives. The inevitability of its end isn’t something the movie approaches with dread. Elio is devastated, yes, but his father reminds him how lucky he was to experience something so powerful and pure.
“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new,” he tells his son. “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!”
Elio may be crushed now, the movie may end in winter with an extended close-up of his face staring at a fire and replaying the summer, but his father’s words indicate that in time he will become grateful for the experience. In other low times later in life, those memories will flicker with an impossibly warm glow.