“You know, when you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.”
Somewhere in Northern Italy, we’re told. Early 80’s, the title cards read and the clothing/music suggest. It’s in this transformative, cambio vita stretch of time that Elio (Timothée Chalamet, a newer name for most, and one you’ll hear for decades to come) first meets Oliver (Armie Hammer), the tall, curious, golden-skinned American God spending his summer as a grad student understudy on Elio’s family estate. Elio literally looks up to la muvi star; admires his unpremeditated approach, his etymological intellect, his ability to cut through the noise of sparring Italians. The Oxford shirt wearing Oliver is intrigued by Elio; he’s reserved, self-critical, unsure of himself. Perhaps Oliver sees in this young man the way he used to be, and it’s possible Elio envisions the type of person he wants to become. And that right there is the absolute crux of this mitigating love story. In Call Me by Your Name, two people try to see one another for who they might be. More importantly, and maybe for once, they fully allow themselves to be seen by the eyes of the person doing the looking, allowing another to imagine who they might separately or jointly become. To disrobe this thoroughly requires great bravery.
Oliver is there to aid Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), to catalog his findings, to pen notes, to do his own work while building towards a post-doctorate thesis. Elio, Prof’s son with Anella (Amira Casar), is a bibliophile and a passionate 17-year-old recluse, waiting out the Summer by reading crusty, musty books and transcribing music, every effort made to pass the days in a world where shadowed sun dials are the closest counters of time. For Elio, leasing out his room to his father’s annual lodgers has become routine, but none have been quite like Oliver. He’s voracious in his appetite for food and drink and culture, an American so capable of playing the part of newcomer and the pseudo local heart-throb Italian that he becomes a point of conversation around the square’s bustling piazzetta. Elio finds his abrupt and foolhardy “Later!” salutation to be a hostile calling card of arrogance. But maybe that’s because he pines for Oliver. Because “Later” signifies an unwanted bridge in their relationship, and because this young man wishes that “Later” sounded a whole lot more like “NOW.”
With this idyllic Summer comes heat, sweat, kisses across the nape of the neck, fresh fruit and glasses of wine, late night swims and the furtive glances of greedy eyes tinted by sunglasses as crushes apricate under the sun’s rays. Both Oliver (meaning: fruitfulness and beauty and dignity) and Elio (meaning: sun) have their own flings. Elio seems to spitefully seduce Marzia (Esther Garrel), a divine, litigious young woman who wants to be desired by this quiet guy but fears being hurt even more. They give themselves to each other twice – never very romantically, chartering the paths and the lines of their bodies like virginal explorers testing new waters – until Elio becomes conflicted. Meanwhile, Oliver begins to date Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), or at least that’s what she thinks. Oliver comes and goes from the house at will. He befriends drinkers, gamblers, starts his own bank account. This is a man of all people. And in what has to be the best scene of 2017, we see Oliver dancing at the discotheque, his worn-down, dirtied, white high-top Converse shifting in and out of reality to the tune of “Love My Way.” In this scene, Oliver’s feet and his shoes do the telling. He’s done this before. Rhapsody is an old friend, not a stranger. Elio can only look on in total and senseless want. Who hasn’t experienced this kind of desperate Marco-Polo call and answer to fill a gigantic void? Desire can be so damn uncontrollable.
Throughout André Aciman’s novel, Elio mostly lives inside his own head rather than fully luxuriating in his healthy, preserved, affluent surroundings. Such a pensive, scrupulous style bodes well for this quieter film adaptation. Not only would heavy narration have stripped the film of its stunning and sometimes silent performance art, it would have given the reins of a turbulent train to a single conductor. And so the film counters its inner-silence with narrative passivity, enlivened by charts of classical music. Aciman wrote, “if youth must canter, then who’ll do the galloping?” In CMBYN, every scene and every movement trot together step by step, the flowing stopgaps illustrated through chords and rhythms which paint what it means to be so close and yet so far from a person who not only feels important to your existence, but practically immemorial, as if the contents of their soul were a sacred prayer you’d recite before rest. So often in life, you remember important individuals because tiny little jagged pills remind you of them. Yet too rarely, they inhabit entire objects and spaces and scents, and they tag along in our back pockets, seemingly forever. The powers of love can cause collateral, irreparable damages when deployed without reason. In CMBYN, the heartache comes from fallow fields yearning to be sowed. Things will never be same. Nor should they be.
Orchestrated and arranged just the way director Luca Guadagnino sought this film to be seen and heard, CMBYN doesn’t blitz us with pornographic sexuality. The movie wants to tease us and to arouse every one of our senses, not just orgasm and roll over after the first big bang. This is evident early on when Elio shuts his armoire after Oliver takes his room, his bed, his space. The young man has secrets to hide from this “usurper.” Later on they embrace, skin against skin, two melodies combining into an angelic musical fugue, their act of love taking place off-screen. Some critics have panned this directorial decision, yet I agree with Guadagnino’s choice to hide the most intimate parts of the characters’ lives, because that’s what they attempt all along. This is their moment, and Luca wraps a tie around the door handle, warning us that love is being made behind these doors, and that this union belongs to the people in the room and no one else. What a refreshing, humanist point of view.
As the final puzzle piece in Guadagnino’s “Desire” trilogy, Call Me by Your Name resembles a tamer, less controversial take on the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, all without the need for incest and rape and suicidal thoughts. All we need is Chalamet giving the best performance of 2017, Hammer absolutely nailing the best supporting turn of the year, and a director who allows his two sensuous, Hellenistic shaped leads to command the screen and to dissolve into the horizons of Monet-like portraits. The film comes full circle with Michael Stuhlbarg delivering – and I say this with zero hyperbole – one of cinema’s greatest, most sincere monologues to young Elio. It’s terribly painful to watch, the words trying to heal and salvage a heart that’s been ripped from its cage. And then the film ends, we sit through the emotional credits, and the unbroken shot – along with the entire story – mixes the identity crisis of last year’s Moonlight with La La Land’s forced awakening, striking that last piano key to look up and realize that the love of your life has exited the plane of existence where you alone are meant to stay. But like Elio, we let the pain pass, and smiles break through the tears, for we know that true love really does exist, however brief or longstanding it may be. Is it better to admire the flawless beauty of a sculpture, a painting, a true work of art? Or to fall in love with all of the peccadilloes that we as people collect on the journey of life? The decision is up to you. 2017 wasn’t visited by a more meditative, lilting, personal mirror of reality than Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s pièce de résistance and one of the great films of the 21st Century.
“You’re too smart not to know how rare – how special – what you two had was.”
Rating: 5 out of 5