They really don’t make films like Call Me By Your Name anymore. Watching it legitimately feels like you are seeing a classic being born. I’m not sure the last time I saw a film with this level of mastery over storytelling, acting and more – certainly it hasn’t been since the 70s, when Antonioni, Bertolucci, and Coppola reigned supreme. I’m quite literally in awe of what Luca Guadagnino has pulled off here, creating an emotionally raw, painfully nostalgic reflection on first love, first heartbreak, and more between two people in a strange land during a strange time. It’s cinema at its finest, and Guadagnino should feel proud of what he’s accomplished.
Somewhere in Northern Italy in the Summer of 1983, American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) comes to stay with the family of archeology professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg). This doesn’t sit well with Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the professor’s seventeen-year-old son, who finds Oliver to be obnoxious and a showboat. However, as the two spend time together over the course of the summer, their attraction begins to grow and grow. And soon both of them engage in a summer of love, heartbreak, and lessons that will last a lifetime.
Call Me By Your Name is the kind of slow-burning, deliberate, perfect art we don’t see anymore, the kind where every detail and every choice has a very specific meaning. Each time the camera lingers, the editing doesn’t cut, or the actors pause, we’re meant to reflect upon what we’re seeing; we must ask ourselves why Guadagnino wants us to see this. The answer, of course, is deceivingly simple: because our characters cannot communicate, they have to demonstrate their feelings in other ways. Oh, that’s not to say that the film depends or revolves around clichés like a judgmental society or anything like that (although being the 80s in a very conservative Italy must certainly exist in the back of the characters’, filmmakers’, and audience’s minds). I simply mean that these characters are incapable of demonstrating their emotions properly. As two of the only Jews in the village they stay in, they are strangers in a strange land, depending on each other for comfort and support. As feelings have no choice but to emerge, we watch a traditional game of seduction. However, what makes the first half of this film so fun is the question of who is seducing whom? We are left to decipher each touch and each smile that the two exchange, wondering what secret message they are passing along to the other, and if that person is picking up on it at all. As they can’t use their words to communicate, they must send messages on an intellectual level – through music, through dance (their drunken showboating to The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” is a highlight), and literature – things don’t really become clear for the audience until the two share an elongated conversation about whether a knight in a book should speak his love aloud or not.
All of this works to create one of the sexiest films I’ve ever seen. Now, let me clarify here: while there certainly is some sexual stuff going on here (the camera cuts away to the curtains quite literally almost every time, however), a “sexy” film is different than a “sexual” film. A sexy film finds other ways of demonstrating the absolute primal lust of human nature without actually invading one’s privacy or feeling exploitative. Think of the 1940s, and how everything was super, super sexual without anything more than a passionate three-second kiss, or how the late seventies/early eighties were always sexiest when some meathead guy sexily danced shirtless for Jennifer Grey. Call Me By Your Name follows in these films’ traditions by finding the sexuality in the buildup, as well as the blissful first few weeks of any new relationship. One of the sexiest scenes in the film comes when Oliver decides that they will meet each other at midnight, and we slowly, achingly traverse the rest of the day before they can be together. Throughout the day, we watch as Elio looks at his watch, seeing how long he has to make himself wait before he can be himself and release his emotions, only to find ourselves taunted as Oliver walks by and asks Elio for the time in front of his parents. It’s so painfully sexy and loving and real that it hurts. We also find sex represented cinematically, as the sun-drenched cinematography reflects the beauty of the two men and the overall sexuality of summer, while the decision to linger on fruit (especially the film’s now-infamous peach) represents the lustful nature we associate with its ripe juiciness. Each decision is carefully thought out to milk the film for its peak sexiness, and it works like a charm.
However, beyond just making the film appear sexy, each aspect of the filmmaking is expertly handled in order to craft a perfect, meditative story. As mentioned above, the cinematography is gorgeously lush and sexual, but it does more than that: it tells a story. By using its bright, nostalgic lighting, the film transports us back not to 1983, but to the summer where we met our first love, where everything seemed magical and nothing could ever go wrong. With the simple act of lighting, we remember a world of possibilities before the world allowed us to grow cold and negative. Furthermore, it forces us to consider each and every zoom, shift, and cut. When the camera lingers, we’re forced to ask ourselves why it lingers, and to question the implications of focusing on a tree full of apricots. This is the type of film where a simple shift in focus from one character to another can speak volumes about the film, and almost change the entire meaning of the film. The camera in this film is as alive as any of its characters, and it elevates the film to another level of filmmaking. And I haven’t even mentioned the score by Sufjan Stevens, which properly reflects the hopeful, melancholic nostalgia of our early years, most particularly in his rousing songs “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon,” both of which deserve to be considered in the same category as “As Time Goes By” and “Moon River.” Each and every detail in this film is utterly, utterly perfect.
However, above all, this is an actors’ film, and it is centered by two of the best. At 21, Timothée Chalamet is an absolute discovery in the role of Elio, reflecting so much of the introverted young man with just his face, and perfectly embodying the sort of awkward half-confidence, half-easily embarrassed nature of any young man trying to navigate his first relationship. He’s funny, he’s tragic, he’s awkward, and above all, he’s human, and the final shot of the film that plays out over the end credits is easily one of the best pieces of acting of the year. Meanwhile, Armie Hammer is nowhere near 24, as his role calls for, but once you get past that plot detail, you’ll easily embrace his Oliver. Hammer makes Oliver such a realistic, likable character that you overlook his many flaws, like his tendency to say “Later,” or his terrible dance abilities. It’s also a rare instance where the looks add to a performance as oppose to distract you (it’s hard to take even a great film like, say, Casablanca seriously when you’re just sitting there going, “Oh, yeah, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are working class people. I’m sure that’s realistic”). By showing him first as an Adonis-like human being, it becomes more and more eye-opening and realistic as we peel back the layers of his sensibilities as Elio brings him out of his shell. He and Chalamet play perfectly off each other, and they make sure to center a film that would be nothing without them. Meanwhile, Stuhlbarg doesn’t have too much to do in his role as Mr. Perlman, but his monologue at the end is rightfully being praised as one of the film’s standouts. And as the three major women in the film, I found myself infinitely happier whenever Amira Casar’s Mrs. Perlman, Vanda Capriolo’s Mafalda, or Esther Garrel’s Marzia wandered back into our universe. They rounded out a cast that would be nothing without them.
Call Me By Your Name is cinema at its finest. It’s the kind of art that hits you on all levels – it makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes you long. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen this type of filmmaking, and I’m sure it will be a very long time before I see it again. All I can say is that Luca Guadagnino has crafted a masterpiece, a modern day love epic that will stand the test of time, and that I cannot wait to see again. Rumors are already floating that Guadagnino is planning a Before Trilogy like series focusing on these characters, returning to their lives every few years. I’m not entirely convinced that’s necessary, but if he can promise something this incredible every time out, then by all means, cancel every other film and put all your money into this. Long story short, I love this movie.