By Zhuo-Ning Su.
Films are lives imagined, projected, simulated. When the play-pretend is effective and the make-believe works, we can hope to lose ourselves in a staged reality that convincingly reflects our own. Every once in a long while, however, a movie would come along that, for reasons often too mysterious to articulate, goes beyond imitating life and simply lives. Breathing, aching, tingling in full force and real time, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age romance Call Me by Your Name is human experience miraculously distilled and so organically relayed you don’t even know what hit you after the credits rolled.
Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, the movie unfolds over six weeks during the summer of 1983 “somewhere in northern Italy”. This being the time before cell phones and video games, 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) whiles away the sun-drenched days reading, transcribing music, toying with naughty thoughts at his family’s European domicile. The charmed bourgeois existence can be a luxurious bore for an adolescent. So when Elio exclaims “The usurper!” to hangout partner Marzia (Esther Garrel) after hearing the arrival of the latest house-guest, there’s a detectable note of anticipation in his voice.
Said houseguest is revealed to be Oliver (Armie Hammer), graduate student of Elio’s dad, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), summoned from the States to assist him with the compilation of archaeological materials. Oliver is a big, hearty, conspicuously American guy who enchants the local community with his unique brand of cool but irritates precocious, sophisticated Elio for that self-assured way he has of throwing around ridiculous catchphrases like “Later!“. As the summer wears on, the boy’s curiosity towards this man he can’t figure out will grow and eventually trigger the kind of raw, definitive awakening that would change a person forever.
Call Me by Your Name is not your usual, dramatized rendering of an affair. Instead of resorting to a clear three-act structure or plotting devices that would have more readily fueled momentum, the screenplay (co-written by James Ivory) follows a far subtler beat to chronicle, expansively and unhurriedly, every detail of a delicate relationship taking shape. From an innocuous game of volleyball, a chilled day trip to the beach, a retro open air dance, to afternoons spent idling by the pool, seemingly inconsequential events are documented with the fervor of a meticulous diary keeper. What could have registered as linear, cluttered banality served the film beautifully, for it’s through such unaffected, naively punctilious reconstruction of memory that the map to a young, restless mind emerges.
Indeed, what proves to be most compelling about the film’s writing is its naturalism and microscopic attentiveness. There are no villainous figures or traumatic twists of fate lying in wait. The characters meet, connect, then part all with a gentle inevitability that’s distinctly free of dramatic conceits. As such, the distance of fiction falls away and Elio’s passage into adulthood comes sharply alive. With startling immediacy we’re reminded how one learns about longing, loss and regret. How some of our formative, most intimate realizations spring from a casual skip of the heart, an exchange of questioning glances, bouts of sudden, overwhelming insecurity relieved only by the inexplicably comforting sense of togetherness. Feelings that, before we have the words for it, inform us of love.
The famously many-splendored thing burns bright in all its glory under Guadagnino’s sensitive, empathetic direction. Eschewing an overtly tragic tone, he digs beneath the melancholic sheen of the story to find notes of joy, passion, fulfillment, each observed and celebrated with the appreciative gaze of a true humanist. The scenes, staged with breezy lyricism and always tuned in to the slightest dynamic change between the protagonists, pulse fully-oxygenated, flowing into each other with the sort of melodic, instinctual rhythm that betrays little premeditation. This hot-blooded authenticity is especially evident in his depiction of desire and sensuality. Unlike most mainstream American romances – gay or straight – sex is not treated as an afterthought, a necessary accessory; it very much permeates the movie like the all-consuming, earth-shattering thing it is for any teenage boy – let alone one who’s just starting to get hot and bothered by every inch of naked skin he sees. Guadagnino, known for the carnally charged I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015), demonstrates once again an innate understanding of the mechanisms of lust. Not relying on graphic, over-choreographed sex acts, he knows how to shoot a furtive look, a rogue tongue, slowly intertwining limbs, a pair of drying swimming trunks or – yes – that ripe, juicy apricot, to evoke the unmistakable tease, taste and smell of sex. This robust, refreshingly candid eroticism sends a hormonal rush through the sizzling picture and gives it that sticky, sweaty human context.
Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, a long-time collaborator of Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is responsible for the film’s exquisite look. The ever-fluid movement of his camera and the unexpected angles from which he captures everyday details inject vibrancy into the action. His exuberant embrace of the light leaves a nostalgic afterglow that takes you back to an age of innocence. Further bringing out the emotional hues of the story is a spirited soundscape consisting of rosy orchestral pieces and two original songs penned by Sufjan Stevens. The former carry with them the hope and careless rapture of youth while the latter, used like weapons in a couple of key scenes, utterly devastate. Exemplifying the remarkable marriage of visual and aural craftsmanship is an intoxicating musical interlude where Elio, fraught with confusion, waits for a disappearing Oliver to show up. As the first wistful notes of Stevens’ tune drop, the screen plunges into an auroral shade of dark, leaving only a lovelorn shadow confessing, praying into the night. It’s a moment of stupefying beauty and romantic urgency the likes of which we seldom see.
Of the solid supporting cast surrounding the two leads, Stuhlbarg stands out thanks in no small part to that instantly iconic monologue delivered towards the end. The speech, poignant in what it has to say about the meaning and necessity of heartaches, bursts with an almost unbearable kindness, and Stuhlbarg’s measured, compassionate delivery sends the prose flying. Hammer, perhaps not the most skilled of actors, brings for his part a thoroughly disarming confidence and physical ease pivotal for the equation. Then there’s Chalamet, who hit it out of the park with his portrayal of Elio. From a carefree, self-certain boy before love to a mellowed young man marked by hurt and doubt, he grows up in front of our eyes. So soul-baringly honest is his performance that, during the unbroken final shot of the film, you can practically trace the character’s thoughts as he mentally revisits the summer where everything changed. Instead of ending, this quiet, perfectly paced conclusion lingers, whispers and suggests with its eloquent stillness—a turning page. Call Me by Your Name is not a queer masterpiece. It’s a masterpiece.
Zhuo-Ning Su is a Berlin-based freelance film journalist who contributes to, among others, The Film Stage, AwardsDaily and EXBERLINER.