Honestly and rightfully one of the best films of 2017, Call Me By Your Name leaves a deep impression. The film follows Elio Perlman, an American-Jewish seventeen-year old as he spends his summer in Northern Italy with his highly educated parents. It is a tradition of his parents to invite a graduate student working on academic research to spend the summer with them for 6 weeks, and this year Oliver, also an American-Jewish, shows up. Elio expects the summer of 1983 to be as boring and slow as the others, except Oliver attracts him more than the rest ever did.
Slipping fluidly from French, Italian and English, Elio is scholarly like his parents, an avid reader and a piano prodigy. Despite all his talents, Elio is as emotionally unaware as any seventeen year old, spending much of the film contemplating his sexuality and fascination with Oliver.
Six weeks is not a long time, but in that time Elio and Oliver dance a careful, tentative courtship. The film focuses on the power of suggestion, and through muted gestures and restrained words Elio tries to show Oliver his affection. For much of the film, the soundtrack consists of layered piano pieces, reflecting Elio’s affinity with the piano and one of the only signs of the tumultuous feelings Elio has for Oliver. Sufjan Stevens and Ryuichi Sakamoto deserve acknowledgement for their compositions creating much of the film’s tone: lulling, nostalgic and at times tidal.
Elio also tests the waters of heterosexuality with Marzia, a Parisian girl that Elio has spent his past summers with. With Marzia, Elio explores and denies his sexuality, yet around her, Elio’s behavior is more serious, reserved, even affected. Once Elio’s affection for Oliver is out in the open, Elio is the most himself around Oliver. With Oliver, Elio is impulsive, giddy, almost kiddish. It is also notable that Oliver draws out Elio’s pride as a Jew, and Elio begins wearing a Star of David necklace as if to imitate Oliver in an attempt to remain close to him even as they spend their days apart.
Timothée Chalamet stuns in his role as Elio. His first major role, the largely unknown Chalamet plays Elio with the sensitivity and layered possibilities of a veteran actor. So many emotions can be felt from just Chalamet’s eyes or his facial expressions, that words sometimes become obsolete. Hopefully Chalamet will ride the wave that this film is giving him well, and continues to surprise. He is definitely a promising actor to watch out for in later years.
Elio is the main character, but Armie Hammer, to his credit, is wonderful as Oliver. Much of the film is from Elio’s perspective, watching Oliver from Elio’s view and wondering why Oliver will not pay Elio the same attention the young boy pays to him. However, there are some glimpses of Oliver’s affection for Elio. In these small, short moments we see the depth of Oliver’s love for Elio. It is subdued, but no less real.
Latter parts of the film suggest that Oliver was enamored with Elio all along, perhaps even before Elio realized his feelings for the graduate student. Oliver is understandably hesitant in making moves on Elio, conscious of the seven-year age gap, and trying to discern if Elio is experimenting with or discovering his sexuality with Oliver.
The director, Luca Guadagnino, is Italian and he honors his homeland through sweeping camera pans over the beautiful Italian landscape. Many have criticized the lack of explicitness in the sex scenes, eroticism being a major attribute of the novel the film is based on. Some say that it is difficult to categorize the film as LGBTQ without this explicitness. However, the direction of the camera was often strategic. In a sex scene, the camera moves away from the bodies of Oliver and Elio, and focuses on the landscape just outside the window of the bedroom. Through this direction it was more like the camera was blushing and looking away: the love between Oliver and Elio was so pure and raw, and sex so intimate, that it is almost rude to film them in the act.
Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father also played a major role in the emotion the film elicited. In the wake of Oliver’s inevitable departure back to America and studies, Stuhlbarg delivers a nuanced monologue. Mr. Perlman encourages his son to feel deeply: love, grief and pain, for it is better to feel everything than nothing at all. A valuable lesson for an impressionable seventeen year old, even one amidst heartbreak. Mr. Perlman’s wholehearted support is particularly moving in the context of 1983 when gays were still very much discriminated against.
Some of the lines spoken between characters are ambiguous, but a deeper look in the ambiguity are these layers of meaning and emotion that Guadagnino has placed there for the audience to sift through. In essence, Call Me By Your Name is a romance film, and the relationship is portrayed with such sensitivity and care that it makes it that much more moving. One need neither be a man nor homosexual to identify strongly with Elio, with the same uncertainties, insecurities and ambiguity in one’s emotions.
Watching Chalamet and Hammer portray the relationship between Elio and Oliver is a pleasure in itself. The two characters love each other so completely, one accepts the other so wholly, that it is impossible to not support. Watching them it is impossible to deny the fact that love does exist, and one may even envy Elio of this wonderful love. This film could make a romantic even of the most cynical.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics