Call Me by Your Name (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
To tell a love story without the expected words, phrases, and gestures meant to communicate specific thoughts, feelings, and private longings is particularly challenging to pull off, awkward and off-putting when executed even with the slightest hint of self-consciousness, but Luca Guadagnino’s surprisingly disarming “Call Me by Your Name,” based on the novel by André Aciman, makes it look like most graceful dance, so natural, delicate, and free of chains that prevent so many coming-of-age pictures from reaching their maximum potential. Here is a film that gets it right every step of the way, a rarity under any standard, clearly a modern classic.
Its postcard-like countryside images of Northern Italy makes us wish to jump into the screen and inhale the scents of verdant fruit trees, swim in the blue-green ocean, and allow the hot summer winds to caress every centimeter of our skin. Since the screenplay by James Ivory does not concern itself with delivering the usual beats and rhythms of the sub-genre, the picture takes its time to explore places, like a secluded area where water from the mountains accumulate, a plaza with a statue paying tribute to a lesser-known World War I battle, a welcoming neighborhood where one can stop by and ask for water after a long bicycle ride. It gives a feeling that, like the characters, we, too, are on vacation and so the feelings they have toward the place and one another are all the more resonant to us.
Notice how the material is not plagued with drama typical of LGBTQ romance films or romance films in general. The protagonist is never put in a situation where he must choose between two potential mates with opposite interests and personalities, no motormouth friend with her own subplot designed solely for comic relief, not even a typical event when one is forced out of the closet, often a bully’s doing, or by accident, likely to have done by a friend, ally, or possible romantic interest. No one dies from a disease, a freak accident, or suicide. Nearly every choice is fresh so it feels like anything is possible.
Because there is no distraction, the audience gets a chance to understand seventeen-year-old Jewish-American Elio (Timothée Chalamet) as an individual and as well as a person who just so happens to be attracted to another man, Oliver (Armie Hammer), a Ph.D. student from America who was invited by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeologist professor, to assist with academic work. But because Elio, clearly gifted musically and a voracious reader, is a quiet and secretive person, we learn about him mostly through his actions and the objects he surrounds himself.
Notice how nearly every room is filled with books, many of which are worn with pages nearly falling out, how he is often writing or daydreaming, observing other people from a distance. Introspective viewers will almost immediately relate to this character and Chalamet ensures that Elio is on a constant state of change. We must catch up to the protagonist rather than simply waiting for him to change eventually.
The chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is peerless. There is never a disingenuous or forced moment. Coupled with Guadagnino’s string of smart decisions to abstain from showing every intimate scene that Elio and Oliver share, a highly sensual, rather than crudely sexual, examination of young love is created. So many romantic pictures attempt to capture sensuality but often ending up false or, worse, sleazy. Here, the relaxed environment matches the effortless budding intimacy.
“Call Me by Your Name” resonates with me because it is filled with people, scenery, and experiences that I had or currently have in my own life. Particularly realistic and moving is the way Elio’s parents (Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) are written and portrayed. They love and know their son through and through. They may not say it but they never fail to show it. They remind me of my own parents in how certain things may go unsaid not out of fear or worry but because it is not necessary, simply superfluous. Here is a film that leaves a great lasting impression.