There is a shot midway through Call Me By Your Name that showcases the observant directing style of Luca Guadagnino. Timothée Chalamet’s seventeen year old Elio is lingering around his parents Italian villa in the midst of summer. Lackadaisical and carefree, he opens a fridge and stares into it, eventually pulling out what he desires. He closes the door as he leaves the room, but it doesn’t shut completely. The camera lingers on the door, creating a brief moment of unease, only for that unease to be quickly dismissed by the housekeeper moving into frame to close the door.
Any other director would have cut the shot as soon as the character had left the frame. However, Guadagnino’s effortless direction reinforces the calm, holiday-mode that this group of intellectuals in Italy find themselves in. Often scenes will linger on moments, allowing you to savour the aftertaste of what has just passed, giving you the time to contemplate what you have just experienced. On more than one occasion, the camera watches as young men ride bicycles through country vistas, simply observing their path through life under the ever present sun. There is an open invitation to allow your mind to savour what it is experiencing, while at the same time understanding the need for it to digest each moment properly.
Elio is the son of Michael Stuhlbarg’s Mr Perlman and Amira Casar’s Annella. Stuhlbarg’s Mr Perlman is a professor who studies Greco-Roman culture. He’s multi-lingual, profoundly brilliant, extremely aware of his place in society, as well as aware of the impact of history and the cultures that have been imbedded through time. The Perlman’s embrace the culture they work with, involving the local community in their endeavours to explore and revive long lost relics that inform and educate about the town they live in.
Through the supportive upbringing of his parents, Elio is able to explore life and culture in a way that many others would not be able to. In one beautiful scene, Elio sits at a piano and plays a piece of music in the ways that composers long gone may have played. He is carries the feel of one who has grown up absorbing culture, allowing him to understand what mood a composers work conjures. Elio is intelligent, but most importantly, he is empathetic. While the more cynical viewers out there may read this as being a tale of ‘white privilege’ (and in some realm, it is), this is never the immediate takeaway from the film.
Joining the Perlman’s in Italy to assist with their research is Armie Hammer’s pseudo-Adonis, Oliver. He is a sunsoaked figure who moves through life with an almost arrogant level of ease. Upon arrival, Stulhbarg’s professor immediately challenges Oliver’s intellect, poking and prodding to see what kind of student of time he would be dealing with. Oliver pokes back, proving that his intellect and aptitude is up to the task of exploring this beautiful culture throughout an equally beautiful summer.
There is much to be said about the romance that drives Call Me By Your Name. It’s not a spoiler to mention that eventually, Oliver and Elio fall in love. This is a love that will be a significant chapter in both of their lives. The epitome of love – that walking on air, top of the world, nothing can stop me now feeling – has so rarely been captured with such accuracy on screen. It’s usually saccharine, distorted by the shade of Valentine’s Day-esque product pushing, or hampered by a tragedy or torment that robs the innocence and beauty of seeing two people in love. So often cynicism wins out, as if to say ‘how dare two people be in love and enjoy being in each others company’.
There is a moment of pure beauty within a sea of beautiful moments that showcases the simple joy and excitement that one feels when they’re falling in love with someone else. Elio, in his loose summer clothes, slides across the gravel in a drive way, his hands in the air, his face looking down. He moves with ease, he moves with elegance, and he moves with the spirit of someone whose heart is beating a million miles a minute, creating that special sense of euphoria that one feels when they’re in love. Guadagnino is so attentive to the needs, wants and desires of his characters that each character – even a momentary, ceaselessly vocal couple at a dinner – gets their moment of beauty, their moment of love and understanding. This is, after all, a film that looks at the way we interact with one another and engage with those who we love and care about.
The film opens with a title card saying ‘sometime in 1983’. Throughout the film, music from the era flows through speakers of the neon-hued bars and out of windows of parked sports cars. This creates a perfect backdrop for bodies of all kinds to move, shake and be free in the art of dance. In one pivotal moment, Elio sits and watches a group of party goers writhe and gyrate to music, his eyes firmly cemented on the era appropriate grooving from Oliver. For a moment, we see Oliver dancing, then Guadagnino cuts to Elio watching. Watching his reaction as Oliver dances, you can almost get the feeling that Elio is sinking deeper in love with Oliver.
Earlier, a barely aged looking statue with a missing arm is rescued from the teal blue ocean, its colour being the only element appearing to be aged by the powers of the salty water. Throughout the film, Guadagnino has his characters in various states of undress. It is summer time after all. The sight of a shirtless men, scantily clad women and floating bodies in the water are never titillating or presented in an eroticised manner. Instead, there is an admiration for the human figure that is rarely scene in the manner that Guadagnino presents. He cares for his characters, and in turn also cares how their body moves.
Comparing the naked statues that are divined from the water like a gold miner sifting for treasure, to the bodies of the men and women within Call Me By Your Name, is to draw a comparison between how we view the human body now as compared to over a millennium ago. In the eighties, the human body was a highly sexualised thing, with fears of AIDS and promiscuity being bolstered by ad campaigns and fear mongering politics. Guadagnino presents the human body as something to be admired, to be respected, and most importantly, to not be afraid of. It’s as if he’s asking us, where did we go wrong over all this time? Why did we become afraid of our physical self?
Throughout his work, Guadagnino has been in an admirer of the human body – think of Tilda Swinton and Mathias Schoenart’s naked forms covered in clay in A Bigger Splash, or Tilda Swinton’s frame in the various dresses she is adorned with in I Am Love. Call Me By Your Name is no different. Is it too hard to forget that there is nothing erotic about the statue of Michelangelo’s David, with instead the statue itself being a ode to the human form? While some may cringe at the thought of a film like Call Me By Your Name being held to the same regard as that iconic statue, I do so with the notion that Guadagnino is simply continuing a conversation that we’ve forgotten to have through art. At its core, Call Me By Your Name is a story about finding love and discovering who you are in a complex world. But, it utilises foundations of art that have been around for longer than the language of cinema has existed.
Through his European eye, he presents a humanity that many non-European filmgoers may be familiar with. In turn, he is the housekeeper to Italy, and we – the viewer – are the Perlman family, entering this foreign country and appreciating, learning from and accepting a culture that is different from our own. At its core, Call Me By Your Name is a film about two men falling in love, but it is also so much more than that. It is a film about acceptance of others, about understanding the needs and desires of a family member, about yearning and the absence of the one you love. It is a profoundly beautiful film, that even weeks after having seen it for the first time, I can close my eyes and be reminded of a moment of purity within this story. It’s a film that I have found myself moved to tears by just thinking of certain moments. Not tears of sadness, but tears of understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to love and care for one another.
So often in cinema, the feeling of love, affection and caring feels fake, but within Call Me By Your Name, everything feels so real. This is exactly what you want from cinema – a beautiful, involving, engaging story that moves you and takes grip of your mind for weeks on end. Everyone involved deserves to feel proud for having been part of ushering this tale into the world.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Writer: James Ivory