Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: James Ivory
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Runtime: 132 Minutes
Call Me by Your Name feels like a visitor from another time. A romantic drama that whilst based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman relies so little on its dialogue to explain itself or its emotions. It manages to feel so traditionalist in its restraint and its beautifully flowing sense of space and imagery in the early 1980s, but also allows the love story between a 17-year-old Italian-American, Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), and his father's American student, Oliver (Armie Hammer) to feel natural and of-the-moment in such a modern way.
The components have been there for quite some time that Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino would eventually make a great film. His energy and bright sense of vision at photographing the natural beauty Italy, as well as his impeccable talents for casting and working intimately with actors to effortlessly flesh out characters, has often been hampered by his bombastic flamboyance in editing and aesthetic which can feel alienating and occasionally misplaced.
Luca Guadagnino’s work here are those ambitions and promises manifested in unforeseen ways. Pulling back on his tendencies for changeable stimulus, the film is calm, concentrated and flows like a cool stream with a warm breeze with some of the most beautiful editing and pacing techniques of any film released this year. Its decidedly unostentatious; shot on 35mm film with a gorgeous glow to its sun soaked vistas, his camera lingers at the beauty of the Italian landscape, architecture and courtyards but feel at one with the tone of this slow unfurling story of first love from the perspective of the young Elio.
Elio is a remarkable character; a handsome young man who seems to have no issue with companionship or courtship with young women his age, unassuming and incredibly talented and intelligent. But it’s the slow unpacking of his own sentiments and emotions that take up the span of the six-week summer the story encapsulates like a haze of emotions and the slow passing of never-ending sunny days of meals and discussion.
Oliver’s arrival and his family’s adoration of the academic displaces Elio in a way that he tries to process through ambivalence and muted small talk as Oliver takes over his room during the stay. But slowly it becomes very apparent that his feelings toward him are something different, and that Oliver may not only be indulging in but also encouraging him in feeling. It teases with playful toying and shared words for the longest time before any outward attraction is made verbally apparent in a wonderfully staged conversation as they circle a memorial on opposite sides, drawing them in closer as their paths narrow.
What’s refreshing and surprising about Call Me by Your Name’s narrative construction is that it never feels conventional from a perspective of structure beyond the timeframe of the seemingly endless summer that the scenes take place in. Any other narrative involving a secret love affair – especially one between two young men in the 1980s – would dwell on the insidious nature of the onlooking world or the dangers of being discovered and pulled apart. But as the film goes on, the calming realisation settles in that despite keeping their love a secret, their friends and family are so open, educated and in touch with their emotions that such a threat or antagonism is completely absent from what is essentially Elio’s coming-of-age story.
Elio’s father, Lyle (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a stimulating intellectual who discusses his love of architecture, language and the physicality of the male form in dismembered statutes in one titillating scene, and seems to understand without saying what is going on between his former student and his son. A dialogue scene near the end in which Lyle unpacks his emotions as well as helping Elio to try and understand the importance of his own is one of the most heart wrenching pieces of text that could so easily sound portentous and needless, but here feels like an expressional emotional release that the film has been waiting for and Stuhlbarg is just exceptional at portraying it.
The pair of leading performances are two of the best of the entire year. Timothée Chalamet is a wonderful find who is asked to fulfil a lot that would put anyone out of their comfort zone, not just regarding sexuality but also his spoken languages and musical ability, and carries all of it with an instinctive charm and looseness to the way he speaks with those his senior. Armie Hammer is delivering the best performance of his entire career as Oliver. He’s a stunning presence to look at and feel and you become as bewitched and in love with his demeanour and vocal cadence as any of the characters.
The two share a chemistry that never feels forced or unnatural in the more physical scene, and the film certainly isn’t afraid of holding back from its depictions of blunt sexuality. It’s not an explicit movie but it’s the context of their passion and longing that informs the intensity of certain scenes and exchanges, be they brief encounters of lust or nightlong fits of appetite – including a brilliantly funny and absurd scene that feels like the artisanal alternative to the famous scene from American Pie, only to be undercut by the broken emotions going on behind.
Call Me by Your Name is in every sense of the word a masterpiece and the best film of the entire year; a delicate, joyous piece of delectable cinema that feels emotional and alive in every frame. Its time spent in the company of good people, with a carefree sense of discovery as the sounds of Sufjan Stevens’ melancholy and airy music carry you through its images and potent intimacy. Let it make you laugh, make you cry, and let it absolutely break your heart, because filmmaking and storytelling as fundamental as this doesn’t come around as often as it should.