Call Me By Your Name is a sensitive and beautiful portrait of a first love set against the summery backdrop of Italy’s countryside.
Drenched in the warm tones of summer and set against the backdrop of 1983 “somewhere in Northern Italy” as an opening title card says, Call Me By Your Name tells the story of Elio (Timothée Chalamet), an intelligent and contemplative 17 year-old who spends his days reading books, transcribing music, swimming at the river, and going out at night. That is until his routine is interrupted by Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American student who is receiving help with his academic paperwork from Elio’s father Lyle (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of archeology. The 2007 book of the same name that the movie is based on is told in what is essentially an internal monologue from Elio’s perspective thirty years after that summer. With the film, director Luca Guadagnino adapts that monologue by moving it into the present day and visually representing Elio’s emotional journey without clunky dialogue or distracting narration. It’s the ultimate use of visual filmmaking and one of the reasons Call Me By Your Name is the best film of the year.
There’s not much to add in terms of plot summary when it comes to the film since it is so character based. Elio and his parents — his mother Annella is played by Amira Casar — are intellectuals who enjoy conversations around the various academics each excel at and are bored by those who cannot entertain that kind of discussion. And when Oliver arrives, they’re all smitten with his ability to keep up with them. However, Elio is put off by his seemingly cocky attitude. Something that he becomes attracted to as the movie moves along.
Elio’s infatuation with Oliver is confusing for him, of course, since, unlike the book, this is seems to be his first time feeling attracted to a man. However, even though he is dating his childhood friend Marzia (Esther Garrel), this is the first time he’s truly falling for someone. It’s his first real crush.
The first half of the movie takes place completely in subtext. The focus of the movie seems to be more on the beautiful landscapes and carefree attitude of the Italian summer rather than the potential romance blossoming before us. However, if you pay attention, the real story is in the details. Looks, touches, movements tell the story of what Elio is feeling and what he is feeling is confused. Anyone did feeling those emotions for the first time. Like any teen, he starts off by resenting Oliver. In particular, he takes issue with the blasé way he says “later” whenever saying bye.
However, as Elio begins to realize that these aren’t feelings of jealousy or resentment, but attraction, he becomes obsessed with Oliver the way that anyone becomes obsessed with a crush. But it’s something more. Elio is too much of an introspective person to not know exactly the game he is playing. He leaves signs for Oliver — questioning his whereabouts, leaving the door to his room from their shared bathroom opened — hoping that he picks up on them. Guadagnino is masterful at portraying Elio’s inner thought process with the camera. However, Chalamet (Lady Bird, Interstellar) must be credited with giving one of the most humanistic and expressive performances of the year. Elio is a masterwork of a character. Complex in more ways than one and constantly changing and adapting to his situation. Chalamet keeps up with those changes and always allows the audience into his head with just his facial expressions. It’s a real powerhouse performance by a promising young actor.
Eventually, Elio decides to take the plunge and become more direct with his feelings for Oliver. And from there, it becomes a struggle internal struggle for both characters to fight their urges despite knowing what’s right. Hammer tackles Oliver with the perfect amount of self-confidence that leaves room for mystery, which leaves the audience wanting to unravel his true persona. And his work with Chalamet makes them one of the most successful onscreen pairings in years.
However, Elio and Oliver’s story has to be places within the context of their surroundings. Elio’s parents have some idea that his relationship with Oliver is anything but ordinary. And their subtle cues to both Elio and Oliver have impact on the story’s forward momentum. And that’s the real virtue of Call Me By Your Name. It lives in the silent moments.
For such a simple story, the thematic depths that Call Me By Your Name covers is incredibly impressive. Elio’s struggle with his sexuality is confusing and aggressive. But it isn’t new ground to be covered, especially in queer cinema. What makes the movie different is it taps into our innate desires. It taps into our desire to be touched. To be held. To be understood. To be loved. Not only that, it taps into that guttural feeling you experience when those things are gone. Most importantly, it expresses those things without words. Though, there is powerful dialogue to be heard.
The final two scenes of the film, which features the now famous speech performed by Stuhlbarg, who deserves an Oscar for his quiet power, and a nearly seven-minute single take of Elio are perhaps the most powerful of the year. And in those last few moments before the film cut to black, the audience sat in silence before applauding, then falling silent again. And though the projector cut out quickly through the screening and we had to switch theaters, the audience was with the film from beginning to end. We laughed, we cried. Simply put, it’s one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. And that’s including Dunkirk. Call Me By Your Name is a masterpiece. A film filled with life and one that any one can empathize with. But the mark that it’s a great film is that as the credits are rolling over that magnificent seven-minute single take, you are hoping it never ends.
★★★★★ out of 5