by Ken Bakely
The summer feels like it should last forever. Every day in the world of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, set across the sprawling countryside in northern Italy, is picturesque, with clear skies, undisturbed fields, and golden sunlight. The nights are dark blue, silence peppered with music or conversation. The pace is slow. Lazy afternoons roll into lazy evenings, the dulled heat of the season nearly coming off the screen. Here is a film which activates the senses. It captures emotions, glances, and the simplest of phrases. It’s lost in time, locked in a guarded capsule, as 1983 becomes its everything – the past and the future both happening at once, and never at all.
When we first meet Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the seventeen year old protagonist living in a villa in Lombardy, he dreads an arrival. Each year, his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor, takes in one graduate student over the summer, advises him in his studies, and guides them through his work. Elio brands this year’s guest, sight unseen, a kind of usurper. Yet when Oliver (Armie Hammer), the tall, handsome, twentysomething American, steps out of the car and into their lives, there is a palpable difference. To see Guadagnino change the dynamics of the film’s mood so quickly, already establishing a tone to change in under five minutes, is remarkable. To see Chalamet’s performance, boarding up Elio’s budding admiration under a shell of cool resignation (both genuine and created), engages us immediately.
From there, Call Me by Your Name gathers careful momentum. Even when Elio and Oliver grow closer and let down their barriers, there is never a feeling of abruptness or random realization. In adapting the André Aciman novel on which the film is based, Guadagnino has spoken about shifting the time frame of the story, moving back four years from the book’s setting. 1983, he argues, was purer than 1987 – untouched by excesses of the decade, but long enough after the ‘70s that the world had changed. Consequently, not only can the movie fittingly dot its soundtrack with the bittersweet bliss of New Wave hits, but in a year established as a buffer, we don’t bring any external presumptions. There are no immediate worries for these two characters, and they can let themselves be together in these weeks. When we watch them ride their bicycles down to a lake where they will kiss for the first time, they are alone in the expansive clearings and vast spaces. Their surroundings can’t separate them, even when the inevitable end of summer will. But they give themselves to the present, and it’s from there sparks fly.
Chalamet and Hammer exude wonderful chemistry. Though James Ivory’s screenplay provides their characters with rich personalities and layered decisions, it’s a testament to their acting that they naturally move toward the reactions of the other. The title comes from a scene when Oliver whispers into Elio’s ear, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.” It’s a moment of shattering intimacy and complete trust. Their performances cherish this idea of temporal unity, with a nonverbal and continual acknowledgement of the other’s presence. This is the idea: that they are together in concept even when not in body. They connect and realize in numerous ways. Both are of Jewish descent, but early on, while Elio quotes his mother (Amira Casar) in describing his family as “Jews of discretion,” Oliver proudly wears a Star of David necklace, and encourages the younger man to be more open with his identity. When Elio dons a necklace of his own later, it’s an affirmation of their shared impressions and openness.
Call Me by Your Name effortlessly allows us to observe them, enveloped in long takes, gentle close-ups, and soft camera movements. While avoiding a certain lurid explicitness, Guadagnino does not detract from the eroticism that charges their bond, and we contrast the implications between Oliver and Elio with the more directly depicted, secondary relationship between Elio and his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel). The scenes involving the former have a conceptual omnipresence, the scenes with the latter get stamped into their moments and kept there. The latter coupling is doomed, and both partners know that – at the end of the film, they revert to their old friendship in a single scene. The former is destined to separation, but the fact is much more difficult to overcome.
The climax’s centerpiece occurs when Professor Perlman speaks to his son, who’s emptied by Oliver’s departure. Stuhlbarg delivers a monologue so pristine, and performs it with such a broad and knowing compassion, that it allows the movie an even deeper and more enthralling arc within its languid foundation. His character knows that Elio and Oliver have had a potent relationship, and he urges his son to engage with the sorrow and pain he feels, because only that will foster his own development. In hearing his words, we realize why Call Me by Your Name is as moving and masterful as it is. Other films would cheat, and add an exterior force or structure, mitigating what already exists. Instead, this movie both warms and breaks our hearts with its genuine, uncompromised embrace of emotion.
We see it in the very last shot of the film, which cements Chalamet as one of the finest up-and-coming actors of his generation, and he does it without saying a word. We also see it long before then, when Oliver and Elio casually spar with displays of their respective intellectual bravado, a prelude to their opening up, or a glimpse of what was there all along. What’s more, maybe we saw it in the entire film to begin with, each frame covered in an earnest but piercing honesty. It never pretends that this relationship could last beyond one summer. Yet it confirms to us that it’s a formative moment that will carry, in some way, throughout the lives of both participants. In two hours, it says and holds the strength of one particularly potent line from Aciman’s novel, when Elio, the book’s narrator, looks at Oliver and thinks back to what their romance meant: “We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.”