Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name

Still from Call Me By Your NameCall Me By Your Name, like all Luca Guadagnino’s films, is mesmerizingly beautiful. The films he is most famous for, I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and now this one, have all been about different aspects of love and desire. Call Me By Your Name explores the transformative power of love, the intoxication of falling in love, and desiring another. Learning about yourself and inevitably changing through that experience. Our protagonist, 17-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) experiences this when he meets Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student who comes to work with Elio’s father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), for the summer. As we move through the story, each emotional beat is visceral. We experience the world as Elio does, as he becomes an adult emotionally and sexually. A change is not only guided by his love for Oliver, but also other relationships around him. Through the others in his life, he learns more about himself, about his body and desires and begins to transform through through these relationships.

While Call Me By Your Name is primarily about the relationship between Elio and Oliver, it is also more than that. Elio is surrounded by love. His relationship with both his parents is central to the story. Elio’s father frames the story with one of the most powerful and insightful speeches from a parent to a child on film, a speech which cuts to the core of what this film is all about. A speech that astonishes Elio, and challenges the viewer to reflect on their own experiences.

A lot has been written about the significance of this film in the context of a queer love story. That it is purely about love, and doesn’t involve some tragedy or familial rejection is not insignificant. And while this is quite definitively a story of two men, and has a number of elements that make it specific in this way, at the same time, we have all been Elio at one time or another, no matter how we identify or who we love. This is the power of this film, and why it has become so significant, despite modest beginnings.  It’s not a romance in the conventional sense. It’s not full of unrealistic declarations for a start, the bread and butter of most run-of-the-mill love stories. And while it’s idyllic and nostalgic, the emotional journey is real. It’s a celebration of falling in love that taps into the raw emotion of that experience, and the memory of it where the rough edges have inevitably worn away.

Guadagnino’s films about love, have all been love letters to Italy as well. Call Me By Your Name is no exception. As a viewer the landscape draws you back to a memory of a similar blissful, soporific, Summer. Probably not in Italy for most, but a place that felt this way at the time. This is a verdant, carefree world, the town is cobblestoned and steeped in mementos of eras past. While it’s very Italian, it is outside of time, this landscape. Much like a memory of first love. The movie is set in 1983, but it could be now. It could be ten years from now. In this part of the world, little generally changes.

Like a skilled painter, each element of this film subtly adds layers and depth to what we’re seeing. The soundtrack takes us back to the early 80s, with some fantastic Euro pop from the era and other 80s icons like Psychedelic Furs, interspersed with some beautiful pieces by John Adams and Ryuichi Sakamoto, with a bit of Bach and Ravel for good measure. And then there are the three songs by Sufjan Stevens, two of which were composed specifically for this film, and all of which contribute to the rich emotional palate, and which Guadagnino intended as a kind of narrator in key moments of the story. The costume design and styling is impeccable for 1983, and yet not so stylised or over-the-top as to be unrealistic. What Elio wears is what ordinary teenagers wore in that era. And yet, as everything old is new again, the clothes wouldn’t look out of place today.

Seriously. Just see this movie. And after that, if you want to go deeper, keep reading my more in-depth take below… but be warned there will be spoilers.

Going deeper – with spoilers

When I first saw Call Me By Your Name, at a film festival about six months before its general release, I walked out of the theatre at the end feeling like Elio. I had just fallen in love and was at once euphoric and heartbroken it was all over so quickly. Let me be clear, I had fallen in love not with Elio’s love interest Oliver, nor Armie Hammer who plays him. As handsome and talented as they both are. I felt, as Elio says about half-way through the film, lying blissfully beside Oliver in the grass, ‘I love this Oliver’. ‘What?’, replies Oliver, although he already knows. ‘Everything’ says Elio. That’s what I fell in love with too. Everything.

We are taken into Elio’s world, into his head from the start. We are not seeing through his eyes, so much as seeing the world as he does, witnessing, experiencing as he does. From the very first sequence, when we see Oliver arrive, we are seeing him as Elio does, from a high angle looking down from Elio’s bedroom. We stay with Elio throughout the film, watching sometimes from a distance, sometimes up close, sometimes in a dreamlike haze. When Oliver takes him into the bar where he plays poker, we alone see Elio pause for a second behind Oliver, surprised when Oliver greets the man by the door like a friend. Like Elio, we are learning something new and unexpected about this man.

Later, when Elio declares himself… in a round-about way… we are watching Oliver from a distance across the war memorial, watching him as Elio is. This scene was shot in one long take, and Elio’s back is to us through this critical moment. We see Oliver’s reaction, and hear Elio’s tone, and this tells us all we need to know. Then Oliver moves out of sight behind the war memorial, and we move with Elio as he plays with the words he has just said to Oliver, “Because I wanted you to know”. He is sounding them out, thinking about them.

When Elio is walking under Oliver’s window, we see him casually try to catch a glimpse of him. And like Elio, we just see a tantalising impression of someone passing the window. Later on, during their last night together in Bergamo, Elio, drunk and happy, kisses Oliver against a wall. The camera pulls focus ever so slightly as we join Elio in this moment, in an intoxicating blur of alcohol and love. As Elio sleeps later that night, we get a flash of his dreams, images of him and Oliver climbing the war memorial. When it is finally time for Oliver to leave, we are behind Elio as he stands there, unmoving, watching the train go. Even when we are watching Elio, we’re inside his head, thanks to Guadagnino’s skilful direction and the ridiculously talented Chalamet (who pretty much everyone agrees we will be seeing a lot more of in future).

A lot has been written about this film, which started as a small indie feature, and seemed to tap into something a lot bigger. Some have criticised it as a fantasy. A confection that makes you feel good, makes you want to go to Italy and return to youth, or to the 80s, or both.  While it certainly does all of those things, I think it’s a lot more than that. Its location, in the Italian countryside, certainly has a history of being a fantasy location for the English-speaking world. But Elio and his family are not solely from the English-speaking world, and they are as much a part of this landscape as anywhere else. And in this film Luca Guadagnino shows Italy through the eyes of an Italian.

Guadagnino has said he likes to film on location to allow little moments of reality to seep into the story. Here we see it through moments like the picture of Il Duce on the old farm house, which the crew found already hanging at the location and decided to leave it there. There is the moment the door slams shut as Elio and Oliver are about to make love for the first time and Elio’s reaction, the fly during the last shot, all happy accidents. Little details that help bring this out of a fantasy world. Then there are the bigger moments of reality, like the awkwardness of Elio when he and Oliver are about to make love. He knows what he wants, but he doesn’t know what to do, and it takes him a little while to work it out.

As a queer love story it is a rare film in that it celebrates love in this way, the emotion, the sensual and sexual nature of love, with no-one dying, and no-one being expelled from their family, or shamed by their friends. It is not a universal story though, this is clear, although it speaks of universal themes. Oliver for all his confidence and self-knowledge, is hesitant about embarking on this relationship, of doing something he would be ‘ashamed’ of. He unable to pursue a relationship with Elio for fear of what people will think, of what his parents would do.

An article which I found particularly insightful on this topic was from The Huffington Post by Matthew Jacobs, who discusses the film alongside Moonlight and Carol as taking an important place in the canon of queer cinema. In particular his discussion on how important what is unsaid is in queer love stories, when being open about how you feel and what you want isn’t always as easy as mustering the courage to say something. This is one of the things about Call Me By Your Name that makes it so powerful, that all is said, and yet nothing is spoken. Elio musters the courage to speak, but like the knight in the fairy-tale read by his mother, Elio fudges as well. And like the princess in the fairy-tale, Oliver is on his guard at first. He doesn’t respond decisively. And yet both Elio and Oliver say a lot in this scene. In this way it’s more like real life, which is rarely about articulate well-crafted declarations. Love in the real world is not like Say Anything with the boom box by window, or any of the Love Actually stories… in fact you’d probably be dialling the police if any of that actually happened to you. Love in real life, gay or straight, is mostly more nuanced than that, more uncertain. The stereotypes of Hollywood have placed a shiny, glittery, scripted glaze on the subject of love, and made it unreal and untouchable. Here, it takes a queer love story, where loud declarations are problematic, to free this love story from those stereotypes and rediscover something of the truth of being in love, of falling in love. The uncertainty of it, the joy of it, the ache of it, and something of the heartbreak of it too.

Bodies and desire is central to the film in many ways. There are ancient statues which appear throughout the film, the pictures in the opening credits, the statues Professor Perlman is cataloguing, “challenging you to desire them” he says, and the one bought up from Lake Guarda. There are the moments Elio is playing idly with his body on his bed one lazy afternoon, his growing awareness and understanding of his body through his relationship with Mariza and, of course, the infamous peach scene. But it’s not just sensual bodies, there is also a changing physicality in the evolution of Oliver and Elio’s relationship, beyond their physical intimacy. For example, during the war memorial scene, after Elio has made his confession to Oliver, Elio stands looking at him directly in the face, confident now, feeling a shift between them. We only watch from a distance, we can’t see their faces clearly, only their bodies, how their bodies react to each other. Oliver is the one who’s not ready for what is happening, and he walks ahead of Elio, turning his back, pretending nothing is happening. But it’s too late, things have changed and Elio jumps on his bike and takes the lead, leading Oliver away, eventually leading him to his secret spot.

A lot has been said about the peach scene, some of it interesting, mostly not. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere about it is how the peach, when Oliver discovers it, leads to another shift as Elio reveals his vulnerability in that moment. And ultimately his anguish at the idea of Oliver leaving and that, for him, their relationship is more than just sexual. This is something we haven’t seen before in this way, and Elio and Oliver’s relationship shifts again.

Finally, I want to talk about the performances. Armie Hammer is a natural Oliver, with his ‘muvistar’ good looks, tall, blonde. He embodies Oliver in his breezy, confident, careless physicality. We don’t have the same insight into Oliver as Elio. The story is mostly told through watching Oliver, and rarely do we see Oliver except through Elio’s gaze. There is a notable, heart wrenching exception, towards the end in the hotel in Bergamo as Elio lies asleep. Oliver is sitting on the bed, and on his face we see this love story flash past us in a moment, and the sadness of its ending. We have one other glimpse earlier in the film, after Elio and Oliver’s first night together when Elio pulls away. We see Oliver register the shift. Little is actually said in this sequence. Elio has shut down, and this time we experience it through Oliver, with Hammer embodying the confusion, concern and fear of this moment perfectly.

Through the first half of the film Oliver casually breezes through this world, charming everyone, while keeping his distance. As things shift between them, Oliver changes, and finally at the end we find out his breezy, apparent confidence hides a deeper conflict. He is the opposite of Elio in this way. He believes his family would not accept him if he revealed himself for who he truly is. His self-assurance is really a façade. We first get a hint of this by the river, when Oliver says they had done ‘nothing to be ashamed of’, at that point, and so should not go further.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar are beautifully cast as the Perlmans, complementing each other with Annella Perlman’s quiet warmth, and Mr Perlman’s openness and enthusiasm for his family and his work, you can see the warmth between them. They have a good life. And in the hands of Stuhlbarg, the monologue the film is now famous for, is delivered with extraordinary warmth, and thought, without weighing down the words. He brings those few moments to life in such a way that we are all Elio, we are taking those words in as if we were sitting in the room with them, and they leave us, the audience, changed. This monologue is what this story is all about. Through love, through connection with others, being open to experience,  being vulnerable, we learn about ourselves, about other people, and we experience life.

Timothée Chalamet is, of course, a phenomenon, and has been widely recognised as such. Without his preternatural talent this film would not have been as successful as it has been. He carries the audience through the film, allowing us to see what is going on between the words, allowing us into his head. Obviously in the final scene, not many actors, of any age, could have pulled that off, a silent close-up several minutes long as the credits roll, and a whole emotional epilogue on its own. The peach scene is another great example, we see the whole thought-process flit very naturally across his face in the lead up, which makes the act itself completely understandable and believable behavour for a 17-year-old, going through what he is going through. More importantly, that scene morphs into something completely different when Oliver comes in. We experience his embarrassment, shame, hurt and finally sadness, which shifts the dynamic between Elio and Oliver once more.

There’s a lot more that can be said about this film, and a lot more has been said, but these are some of the reasons I think Call Me By Your Name deserves a place as a masterwork of a master filmmaker. While this film is certainly a nostalgic one, the truth, and the power of it comes through what is not said, what is talked around, what is shown, and also what is not shown, what is beneath the surface, which is made accessible through the camera, through the choice of music, through the editing, and not least through the direction and acting. That’s no small thing. It is using the pure power of the cinematic medium to portray one of the most fundamental experiences and emotions. Call Me By Your Name is about the transformative power of love, and also demonstrates the transformative power of film.

Where can you watch?

At the time of writing, a few cinemas are still playing a daily session of Call Me By Your Name, and it should be available on iTunes and possibly DVD in Australia by the end of March. In the UK the DVD and Blu Ray is already available.

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