Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation is an emotional and visually stunning depiction of first love.
Can you remember the intoxication of first love? Those moments of overwhelming desire mixed with fear and anticipation giving way to a passionate sexual awakening are the among the most defining moments of a person’s life. It is all-encompassing in a way few other relationships can measure up to. Your every waking moment is spent dreaming of that person, obsessing over every detail and creating a kind of fantasy that reality could never fulfill. And though it almost always ends in heartbreak, we carry the vivid memory of that fantasy with us all our lives. Call Me by Your Name is one of the most exquisite cinematic portrayals of first love ever conceived. The film captures that most magnificent moment in time with such sensual authenticity that it will leave you devastated by the flood of memories washing over you.
Directed with feverish elegance by Luca Guadagnino and written with textured clarity by the legendary James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name tells the story of 17-year-old Elio, a highly educated, artistic, and privileged Jewish-American (also French and Italian) boy living in the Italian countryside with his parents in the summer of 1983. Elio spends his days reading, transposing music, swimming in the nearby lake, and casually flirting with his close friend Marzia. His mundane summer routine is upended by the arrival of a Jewish-American graduate student named Oliver who has come to intern with Elio’s art historian father. Oliver is brash, confident, and strikingly handsome; all qualities that elude the introspective and goofy Elio. Elio is immediately smitten, but confuses his feelings for exasperation. As the summer wears on and the two spend more time together, Elio becomes hopelessly infatuated with Oliver until he finally confesses his true feelings. At first Oliver is hesitant, but a love affair quickly develops between them in the last few weeks of Oliver’s residency.
Call Me by Your Name wisely takes its time in setting up the relationship between Elio and Oliver. For the first half of the film’s runtime it is a quiet dance of awkward conversations, fleeting glances, and combative personality clashes. The film relishes the small moments and the camera will often linger on details that other films would find inconsequential: a foot dangling in the water, the intense drag of a cigarette, the beams of sunlight streaming through a peach tree, the briefest touch of a shoulder. The camera glides and peers around corners basking in the beauty of the male form and the gorgeous surroundings they inhabit. The blaze of the Italian sun ignites the frame and bounces off the two leads as beads of sweat drip down their shirtless bodies. It’s an intensely erotic film from the get-go, aided by its location and unafraid to bask in the beauty of a male relationship. By the time Elio and Oliver finally give in to their desires they practically devour each other with unbridled passion. It’s never gratuitous, but it is refreshingly honest in its sexuality. Some may wish the film had gone farther in terms of its nudity and frankness, but the lyrical quality is part of the appeal. When we think of our first love we romanticize — a characteristic that Guadagnino savors.
All of this beauty would be meaningless without strong performances anchoring the film’s love story, and that is where Call Me by Your Name truly excels. Timothée Chalamet gives one of the most startling and best performances of the year as Elio. Chalamet fully gives way to the extreme emotions of young love, portraying a character sophisticated in ways beyond his years, but naively unprepared for the melancholy he will endure. His discovery and exploration of his sexuality is filled with the joy, angst, regret, and obsession that is all too familiar. His final scene is one of the finest pieces of acting in recent memory as the weight and memory of his love overwhelms him as the camera rests on his face in an extended near five-minute close-up. Armie Hammer has always been a striking actor with untapped potential. Here he lives up to his early promise shown in The Social Network, tackling the tricky role of Oliver and balancing tenacity with tenderness. His chemistry with Chalamet is so palpable that it radiates from the screen, saturating the audience. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a touching supporting performance as Elio’s open-minded father with a monologue near the film’s end that is profoundly empathetic. It will likely leave most audiences in tears as it represents what every child would hope to hear from their parents about life and love.
Music plays a big role in Call Me by Your Name ,tying into Elio’s own deep love of the art form all the while heightening the evocative nature of the love story. The score dips into classical pieces as well as 80’s pop, French, and Italian tunes. The most memorable pieces of music come from Sufjan Stevens’ original electronic folk tunes which are used in harmony with the visuals to comment and reflect on the characters’ state of mind. “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon” are both used at pivotal moments in the story and deliver immense amounts of subtext.
It feels appropriate that at 89 years old James Ivory has crafted a screenplay that feels both reflective and alive in the moment. Ivory has always made sophisticated films about human relationships, but his work here is so painfully observant and truthful that it could only come from the heart. Ivory’s partner in life and business of 44 years, Ismail Merchant, died at 68 years old in 2005. They met relatively young in life and it’s not hard to imagine that Ivory is drawing from his own memories and experience to infuse this story with authenticity. If Merchant had only been alive to see it.
Luca Guadagnino has stated that he would like to make several sequels to Call Me by Your Name as he fell in love with the characters and he feels their story isn’t over. The novel on which the film is based (by André Aciman) certainly leaves room for that possibility as it ends with a coda set fifteen years in the future that isn’t included here. If Guadagnino does carry through with that plan it wouldn’t be without precedent, as Richard Linklater has covered similar ground with his Before Sunrise trilogy with which this film shares much in common. And while you can hardly blame Guadagnino for wanting to see these characters go on, the film he has made is a perfect examination of first love. Its ending feels definitive. Elio and Oliver’s lives will go on and we can imagine where their fates will lead them. But much like our own first loves, it is their initial encounter that will stay with us forever.