Some stories keep you hooked from the minute they start. They are instantly thrilling, electric, and set a high tone that makes it impossible for us to look away. Others, however, gradually grow on us before we’re even aware of what’s happening. They may start as a fling, as a calm cool breeze that although pleasant, is also apparently harmless, only to completely take you in with no way to turn back. Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, based on the novel by André Aciman and screenplay by James Ivory, certainly falls in the latter category. When you least expect it, it will leave you emotionally destroyed but not completely alone: there is a light that never goes out.
Set in the dazzling backdrop of northern Italy, “Call Me by Your Name” is a simple enough story most of us will identify with or have perhaps experienced, in one way or another. Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, nominated for an Oscar for best actor in a leading role) is a reserved but extremely well-educated Jewish boy. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg, currently starring three films nominated for best picture!), is a professor of archeology who often invites graduate students to live and work with the family over the course of one Summer while also profiting from their help with academic research and paperwork. This time, it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer) who arrives, fresh from the United States.
Their personalities could not be any more contrasting. Elio, a prodigy in his own ways, has friends, a girlfriend (Esther Garrel) and enjoys exploring nature and his surroundings, but is mostly a quiet and observing introspective soul who sees rather than speaks. Oliver, on the other hand, is exuberant and loud, somewhat even arrogant, quickly becoming the center of attention wherever he may be. What starts as a mildly confrontational interaction, soon transforms into a closeness that will deeply affect both men. They share their Jewish heritage and explore their sexuality, they bond over art and music while soaking in the Italian sun. Who the hell wouldn’t fall in love in such circumstances, I wonder?
It is 1983 and people seemed to lead different lives. Connections were less guided by technology, conversations had to happen, we had to create our own entertainment rather than just receive whatever was thrown our way. That being said, there’s not much to be said – or spoiled, for that matter – about the plot. This is one of those films to be felt and experienced. If there is a God and if (S)He is indeed in the details, like many say, than Guadagnino’s work is brilliant in displaying how this perfection looks like. There’s a constant aura of sexuality that accompanies the story – not one that feels fabricated and forced, that hopes to exploit people for easy reactions, but rather one that is inherent to ourselves, a quintessential part of who we are, how we experience the world and how we interact with it. When Elio and Oliver finally start to confess how they feel towards the other, the erotic moments and the strong sexual tension shared between them is also incredibly tender, proving the director and his actors found here a balance that is crucial to tell this story.
At Elio’s home, people speak three languages at all times, and shared family time serves to discuss the philosophy of life, music, poetry, and literature. Granted, this is not your average family. They are rich, white and privileged, but none of that negates the honesty and validity of their experience, and how beautifully it translates to the screen. While this may not be how many – or most – people experience this crucial parts of their lives, it’s how it happened in this case. With that, Guadagnino builds a strong image of a place whose sense of community is palpable, and it is precisely in the details of this story, in exchanged glances and shared doubts of its characters, that it grows.
Sometimes it feels inevitable to compare it with other, now-classic gay romances. Think, for instance, about the shirt and what it means in “Brokeback Mountain”. Still, “Call Me by Your Name” manages to establish itself as its own story, its own universe. Thankfully.
If the rhythm of the story feels to momentarily lose its pace – perhaps signaling regular changes in life, the bits and pieces that come when we withdraw because we need to understand what’s happening with ourselves – just hang in there until winter comes. From the silent goodbye at the train station to the gorgeous and heartwarming conversation between Elio and his father, what follows is a powerful and captivating sequence, one that shatters your heart only to then collect all of its pieces, somehow making it stronger.
Pay attention to: the film’s soundtrack, setting an introspective and emotional tone to a story that is precisely that. Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love” is nominated for an Oscar for best original song, and “Visions of Gideon”, also by him, is used in what’s perhaps the film’s most powerful scene.
Director: Luca Guadagnino (also know for “A Bigger Splash” and “I Am Love.”)