Utterly charming and bucolic, a meandering story of a summer idyll unexpectedly builds up into something deeply moving and memorable.
Summer 1983, somewhere near Crema, Lombardy. A landscape of sleepy village squares baking in the afternoon sun, of lazy rivers to bathe in, grass to roll in, of gardens with trees bearing luscious fruit.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is 17, nervy, restless. He whiles away the summer at his parents’ country house, reading, swimming, playing the piano, and transcribing music. A summer visitor comes to stay, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Handsome, long-limbed, airy, self-assured, a few years older – in other ways quite boyish. Hammer has described him as ‘a cultured individual, not necessarily well-travelled’.
Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elio’s kindly father, makes the introductions: ‘Elio, Oliver; Oliver, Elio’. And so, with this melodious alliteration, Elio has the painful good fortune of starting, in due course, his first – and what might become his only – great love affair; it’s a love that comes to be reciprocated by someone kind, who understands him, becomes open to him – but who will soon disappear.
Call Me By Your Name is a film which inspires wistfulness and a pang in the heart, in part because while everyone can recognise in this tale some elements of love stories they might have lived, it is not a given that one should experience both the painful state of grace Elio finds himself suspended in, and also the kindness of reciprocated feelings. Elio’s luck is that even in heartbreak, he is fully recognised and understood by those he loves and is loved by – his parents, his girlfriend, and the man who becomes his lover.
In this film, based on André Aciman’s 2007 beautifully written, urgent, evocative novel of the same name, it is the older man who is the object. It is on Oliver that the camera lingers, it is his body that becomes the subject of repeated allusions. At one point, Elio’s father, discussing Greco-Roman representations of the male body, mentions they are “so nonchalant, hence their ageless ambiguity, as if they’re daring you to desire them”. Oliver looks up at him with some surprise, perhaps wondering.
This moment is enough to understand the father’s intelligent sensibility, and perhaps also something he might have given up. Another scene, where an ancient bronze statue, of a beautiful male body, is retrieved from the sea, and its arm is momentarily held by Oliver, mirroring his own arm, could possibly be seen as a superfluous touch. However, it offers a clue about the narrative – whose point of view is this? The film feels like a series of recollection, episodes from memories – maybe not a story told in real time.
There are a number of other little clues which reinforce this sense, and also the use of Sufjan Stevens songs, which serve, un-ostensibly, as unaffected narration. There are echoes of Henry James, in this summer tale where things are known but not necessarily said. At when point, when Elio talks of things that matter, Olivier asks ‘what things that matter?’ and Elio simply answers ‘you know those things’.
More than anything, there is Proust. A moment in an attic with a peach turns out to be the modern-day incarnation of Proust’s madeleine and cup of tea. It is heart-felt in the moment, but also elegiac.
It is rare nowadays for such nervy, hesitant longing to be felt quite so keenly and translated so well from novel to film. The story could be slight, but turns out to be taut, suspenseful, despite the absence of clear antagonists, obstacles. If there is an antagonist, it is perhaps Elio himself – coltish, unsettled, surprised to discover how drawn he is to a quite unexpected love object. And Oliver, the handsome, statuesque future lover, hesitates; their gradual intimacy is punctuated by recurring glances and retreats. Oliver’s habit of breezily shouting out ‘Later!’ as he turns on his heels and walks off, to wherever, repeatedly infuriates Elio.
The course of the story is less important than the detail of its significant moments. Elio and his parents pile up, entramelled, on a sofa, as his mother Annella (Amira Casar) reads from Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, a 16th century text replete with aphorisms and dark stories. For some reason Annella cannot find her copy of the French original but instead a German translation, and so interprets it as she reads. A knight, Amadour, is enamored of a fair lady, Florida, but does not dare speak his love. “Is it better to speak or die?” he asks. Florida tells him it is better to speak, as “a life lost can never be regained”. In the Heptameron, Amadour turns out to be a predatory man, however, something which is a world away from the gentleness and lightness of Call Me By Your Name.
The problem with summer is that it always ends, and when August is at its height, and langorous, its demise nevertheless nears fast. And so with Elio and Oliver: they are in Eden, but about to fall out of it, and each go another way. But before they do, they live a few weeks of restive desire, hesitation, then delight. In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, Elio’s father offers an elegy to his son of such delicate kindness, so moving, that one is both soothed and sad.
The visual style of Call Me By Your Name is memorable for being elegant yet unshowy; Guadagnino here has called to a new collaborator, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Mukdeeprom is known for, among other films, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In essence, Call Me By Your Name is a period drama, set in an utterly believable way in the early 1980s, but filmed at times almost like a documentary. The style is understated, the images at times almost bleached by sunlight. The photography almost draws attention away from itself, and so does the editing. The one ostensibly cinematic moment is a long take in a village square, somewhat Antonioni-like, but this too, is unassuming. Guadagnino has also mentioned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien as an influence. There are countless delicious but understated scenes. This is a marked departure from the highly stylised cinematography of Guadagnino’s previous films, I am Love and A Bigger Splash.
A Guadagnino film is also a film where music comes to the fore, sometimes in overly powerful ways. In Call Me By Your Name however, the balance is struck just right, and it is wonderful. Hallelujah Junction, a piece for two pianos by John Adams, is done justice here in a way that cannot be said for the way John Adams’ music was used in I am Love. Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’Océan is a striking counterpart to Hallelujah Junction, pregnant with hope and promises of beauty to come. The film is suffused with piano music, and this comes to life in a scene where Elio winds up Oliver by playing the same piece but in different ways – as if Lizst had played around with it, as if Busoni had…
The music also strengthens the sense of time and place. At a party, Oliver, Elio, and their friends dance away to Love My Way by The Psychedelic Furs. The early 1980s come to life – the clothes, Oliver’s shirt open just so, Elio’s Talking Heads T-shirt…
Guadagnino has said that what he most loves about making the film is the sense of place, and the people he got to work with. It is something more than, as he has said, ‘making films about people lounging about in the summer’ – even though this turns out to be a recurring theme in his films so far. He has mentioned that in development, the film had been turned down several times, because it does not follow the classic structure of coming of age films, that it is ‘more like in real life, that you discover yourself in the eyes of the other’. One song which does not appear in the film, but is so clearly vivid in Guadagnino’s mind, so that he sees it somehow as the spirit of the film: Prefab Sprout song ‘All the World loves lovers’.
‘All the World loves people in love, don’t forget it’…such is the spirit of this luminous and touching film.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: James Ivory, Walter Fasano and Luca Guadagnino, from André Aciman’s novel
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Cast: Amira Casar, Armie Hammer, Thimothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Esther Garrel
Originally published on My Film Club, October 2017