Director Luca Guadagnino, only somewhat facetiously, stated that the reason he set Call Me By Your Name where he did was solely due to its close proximity to his home. He may live to regret that decision, with the staggering beauty of the film bound to leave hordes of viewers seeking out its gorgeous locales. This corner of northern Italy a stunning backdrop for a truly stunning film, a story of summer love and self-discovery with career-defining roles for Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer. It’s one of the most sumptuous films of the year, creating a sensual world that you’ll to climb through the screen to live in.
Chalamet is Elio Perlman, a trilingual 17 year old American who spends his summers in his family manor in Italy while his classicist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) conducts his field research. He lives a rather idyllic existence, in his grand, airy house and its sun-soaked gardens, with plenty of local friends and sort-of girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel), whose French family own a summer home near Elio’s. Everything is shaken up, however, the second that strapping grad student Oliver (Hammer) shows up, taking up Mr Perlman’s offer to live with them for six weeks to complete his book.
Elio and Oliver’s attraction is instant and obvious, but neither of them immediately know what to do with it, so for a while their relationship is defined by a cold coarseness. Chalamet is brilliant at conveying Elio’s longing and doubt, and with the entire film told from his point of view, the eventual seduction between Elio and Oliver never feels exploitative, despite the age difference. It’s a wonderful slow burn, enveloping you in their growing love, and their first kiss is a heart-hammering breakthrough, an explosion of repressed feeling that renders them and the audience positively giddy with excitement.
It helps immensely that it’s so beautifully shot by DOP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, feeling both vitally immediate and like a treasured memory, and the swimming scene before the kiss makes sure to show us Oliver through Elio’s exact perspective. A low camera and a rising sun lends the often Adonis-like Hammer a godly air, also reminiscent of the classical sculptures that Mr Perlman is dredging out of a crystal clear lake. Elio’s forwardness in the encounter catches the pair of them off guard, and as well as being sweet and moving, Guadagnino and writer James Ivory, adapting Andre Aciman’s novel, capture the infectiously giggly fun that they’re having.
This team creates a magical sense of place and time, and the 1983 setting, rather than acting as an affected period piece, instead overwhelms you with a perfect, mobile phone-free summer. Every plan is spontaneous, leapt into with only a loose idea of what’s going to happen next. It makes for a film that travels at a leisurely pace, rushing nothing, letting every word and detail sit for the exact right amount of time, and Sufjan Stevens’s music makes for the perfect fit. It’s very gentle, but pierces the soul all the same.
Like the sensational God’s Own Country earlier in the year, Call Me By Your Name is a more hopeful queer love story than we generally see in mainstream cinema – and then unique twice over in that its leads are bisexual. Yes, Elio and Oliver are bound to be split up by Oliver’s return to America, but with this knowledge set out at the start, the inevitable parting never feels doom-laden, and both of their lives are nothing but richer for their shared experiences. This is cemented when Mr Perlman works out exactly what Elio and Oliver’s relationship is, and his speech of acceptance and advice is simply beautiful.
Up until that point, Michael Stuhlbarg has felt a little wasted in a slight, though entertainingly exuberant, role, but this talk with his son shows exactly why he’s one of the best supporting actors working today. There’s no judgement, only care and wisdom, in one of the finest displays of fictional parenting you could hope to see on screen. Even given far less to do, the rest of the (very small) cast fill out the world perfectly, from Elio’s academic mother Annella (Amira Casar), to a hilarious, rapid fire Italian couple who join the Perlmans for dinner and debates.
Guadagnino stages the sex scenes with the utmost care, avoiding visual explicitness, but never shying away from the reality. A peach-based sex act is rather outrageous and played for big laughs, but Elio and Oliver’s first night together is handled with discrete sincerity. The tone of these scenes always matches the mood of the characters, one of a million tricks successfully employed to drag you right into this world. It’s not one you’ll fancy leaving, either, though Guadagnino does ease you out with an icy winter epilogue.
Throughout Call Me By Your Name, characters express their desire to avoid emotional hurt yet, of course, everyone ends up with at least a hint of heartbreak. It’s in the film’s embrace of this pain as something that makes us alive that it finds its strongest power. Without deep feeling, as tough as it can sometimes be, we are lost. Praise be, then, for films like this.