Call Me By Your Name (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Lawrence Garcia

Produced by Emilie Georges, Luca Guadagnino, Marco Morabito, Peter Spears, and Rodrigo Teixeira; directed by Luca Guadagnino; screenplay by James Ivory, Guadagnino, and Walter Fasano, based on the novel by André Aciman; cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom; edited by Walter Fasano; music by Sufjan Stevens; starring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, and Marco Sgrosso. Color, 132 min. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

If Call Me By Your Name represents Luca Guadagnino’s most substantial achievement thus far—and based on the scattershot surfaces of I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2016), it may be his only one—it’s also a triumph of the kind that’s rather unfashionable nowadays, that is, of “conventional” dramatic synthesis, not unlike the Merchant–Ivory Productions of the studio’s heyday. With a screenplay adapted from the 2007 novel by André Aciman, co-written by Guadagnino, Walter Fasano (his longtime screenwriter), and James Ivory himself, the connection is not coincidental. But that link provides welcome grounding for the Italian director, whose lush, tactile sensibility seems to have found, in this Bildungsroman—not always the freshest of genres—a renewed avenue for fervent expression.

It is the height of summer “somewhere in Northern Italy” when Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives, first glimpsed from the second-floor window of the Perlman family’s airy, expansive summer villa. A twenty-four-year-old Jewish-American doctoral student, he’s there to assist Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of Greco-Roman culture, with research particular to the unnamed locale (shot in Guadagnino’s native region of Lombardy). The visitor’s intrusion is an annual tradition by now, for the Perlmans’ teenage son Elio (Timothée Chalamet)—unformed in the way that all seventeen-year-olds are and precocious in the way that only the son of an academic would be—is forced to give up his room for their guest and move into the adjacent one. But moving beyond that initial reconfiguration, Oliver’s arrival proves destabilizing in ways that he can’t even begin to imagine.

Teenager Elio (Timothée Chalamet, center) and American doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer) inspect a Greco-Roman sculpture discovered undersea by Elio’s professor father Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

In its spatiotemporal unity and illustration of a location’s transformative potential, Call Me By Your Name feels very much of a piece with Ivory’s own A Room with A View (the photographs of ancient Italian sculptures in the opening credits, here, recalling that film’s memorable staccato burst of stony limbs in the Piazza della Signoria). As captured by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinematographer on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Syndromes and a Century), the film’s frames practically drip with sensuality, working in blooming, sun-dappled textures and bursts of coded color—the golden-orange center of a boiled egg; a pitcher of apricot juice; a pair of dripping, ochre swim trunks; the flowing juices of a ripe peach. It’s a sublime catalogue of physical sensation, and a precise demonstration of the film’s capacity to transfigure. After all, Guadagnino’s is a vision flush with youthful vigor and playful abandon, realized with a particularly European sensibility that puts it in dialogue with similarly accomplished acts of adolescent portraiture, such as those of 1994’s Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge (a series of films on teenaged youth commissioned for French TV): Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water, Claire Denis’s U.S. Go Home, but especially—given its similarities of perspective and overall tenor—André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds. (In an interview with WWD magazine, Guadagnino actually cites Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours [1983] as a major influence, which does manifest in the film’s period setting and youthful milieu, if not at all in tone or dramatic sensibility.)

Oliver (Armie Hammer) tries to loosen up an “uptight” Elio (Timothée Chalamet) in an early scene.

Pulled together by little more than distended boredom and the heat of endless summer days, Elio (an Italian-American of Jewish descent) and his similarly aged, mostly European friends share an easy, amorphous kind of commitment, which is to say no commitment at all. His dalliances with a longtime (exclusively summertime) girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel), halting and ill-defined, are emblematic in that regard. Expedience is the sole constant. But Oliver’s presence—his massive, sculptural physicality and particularly American arrogance—alters the dynamic, inciting in Elio a jealousy (and urgency) that, for a while, he’s hard-pressed to pin down. When Oliver dances with a mutual female friend at an outdoor club, Elio’s barely suppressed ire is clear enough, but at whom is it directed? In a fixed medium shot that captures Hammer’s presence on the dance floor, set to the intoxicating rhythms of The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” (heartbreakingly reprised in the film’s final stretch), Elio literally slides into the frame in response—a playful, charming mix of brash confidence and tentative sincerity, absorbed into the pure ecstasies of pulsating light and movement.

That scene is the kind of small wonder that Call Me By Your Name is made from, all the more impressive for being so seamlessly fused to an overall, unified vision. In particular, the family’s spacious, seemingly endless villa becomes, by the end, a full-fledged delineation of negotiated and compartmentalized (queer) desire—the room that Oliver displaces Elio from upon his arrival; the bathroom that bridges their rooms, through which Elio must pass to exit his own; a dusty, unused attic which here, as in the novel’s most well-known scene, becomes a crucial space of sexual exploration. That isn’t to say that the film’s impact is primarily academic. Indeed, Guadagnino’s roving eye feels dictated less by precise semiotics (in the vein of someone like Todd Haynes), than by an intuitive, purely emotional tenor. Buoyed by a rhapsodic, largely classical-key-driven score, the camera moves with coruscating energy, floating about with a freewheeling sense of wonder, impelled by a search for the ineffable, the sublime. What this creates in Call Me By Your Name is a very particular sense of time, the lassitude of summer lending itself fully to temporal expansion. In an article in The American Scholar on Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969), which novelist André Aciman credits for changing his life, he expresses a desire Rohmer’s film created in him for “that extra span of time, that durée, which is seldom given in life.” And that’s precisely what Guadagnino’s transmutation manages to create—moments that just seem to linger, suspended, tremulous, and expectant.

Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is in the process of exploring his sexual identity.

“Is it better to speak or die?” Elio asks Oliver in one such moment, referring to a classic French tale of a knight in love with a woman, but unable to express his desire (taken from The Heptaméron, a 1558 Decameron-inspired compilation by Marguerite of Navarre). It’s the essential question of Call Me By Your Name—indeed, a quintessential one for queer narratives—and it hangs heavy in the balmy summer air. But the year is 1983, and Elio, at least, unfixed as he is in his identity, remains uncertain of his own response. (Even his heritage—as “Jews of discretion,” as Mr. Perlman jokingly terms it—is a source of, if not anxiety, then at least hesitancy.) So for a time, the question remains unanswered, at least in words. Conversations become coded in literature and myth, gesture is forged into history, emotions sublimate into art: a playful exchange flows through a Bach composition; a truce is brokered by the dredged bronze arm of a “particularly voluptuous Venus;” an achingly vulnerable request is mediated by a World War I monument. In a decisive break from the entirely classical and then-contemporary score, Sufjan Stevens plays over key moments. Although Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) may seem like an odd point of reference, Call Me By Your Name practically illustrates the great theme of that expansive masterwork, viz. the inescapable insufficiency of language (or its futile devices, to borrow Sufjan Stevens’s other key inclusion). Not for nothing is Oliver unwittingly put to an etymology test (the origin of the word “apricot”) by Elio’s father. Guadagnino’s vision is, after all, an attempt to reveal the essence of things, to collapse the space between knowledge and experience—lent urgency by the attendant passage of time and the knowledge of how words fail, emotions dull, and experience narrows. To find oneself in another, as the title suggests, may be the only recourse.        

Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spend a day touring the nearby countryside.

If the film has a misstep, it’s that once the pair’s relationship is consummated—in a sensual tangle of shadowy blues and naked limbs—the remaining third too often relies on the imperfections of language for its emotional impact. That is, perhaps, the only flaw in Stuhlbarg’s exceedingly tender closing monologue to Elio (largely retained from Aciman’s novel), which, apart from bringing the generational aspects of the film’s queer narrative into focus, raises the undercurrents of parental affection to the surface. But that’s also why Amira Casar’s tacit understanding as Elio’s mother, a performance of unspoken grace, is equally moving. Indeed, it’s that implicit understanding, an embrace of someone whose own self-acceptance has yet to fully manifest (or in the case of Oliver, perhaps never will), that makes the familiar arc so affecting. Lest that make Call Me By Your Name seem somewhat idealized, however—an impression that its Edenic setting might give credence to—the unspoken, manifold tragedies percolating in the margins (not one, but two marriages of concession) firmly establish Elio’s story as an anomalous wonder. It is a rarity, yes, but not an impossibility.

“Remember everything,” Oliver entreats Elio at the film’s close, as the infinities of youth give way to the rapidly narrowing possibilities of age—boundless summer to the epilogue’s wintry solace. A Hanukkah table is set as snow falls lightly outside; Chalamet’s eyes and tear-stained face reflect the warm, pulsing glow of a fireplace. The essential question is finally put to rest. Speak, memory.

Lawrence Garcia is a freelance film critic based in Vancouver, British Columbia, who has contributed to Cinema Scope and MUBI Notebook.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1