"Call Me by Your Name": An Erotic Triumph
Luca Guadagnino's latest film is emotionally acute and overwhelmingly sensual.
By Anthony Lane
The New Yorker, December 4, 2017
The new film by Luca Guadagnino, "Call Me by Your Name", begins in the summer of 1983, in a place so enchanted, with its bright green gardens, that it belongs in a fairy tale. The location, the opening credits tell us, is "Somewhere in Northern Italy". Such vagueness is deliberate: the point of a paradise is that it could exist anywhere but that, once you reach the place, it brims with details so precise in their intensity that you never forget them. Thus it is that a young American named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives, dopey with jet lag, at the house of Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his Italian wife, Annella (Amira Casar), whose custom is to spend their summers there and also to return for Hanukkah. (Like them, Oliver is Jewish; a closeup shows a Star of David hanging from a chain around his neck.) The Professor, an American expert in classical archeology, requires an annual assistant, and Oliver is this year's choice. "We'll have to put up with him for six long weeks", Annella says, with a sigh. Not long enough, as it turns out. You can pack a whole lifetime into six weeks.
The first words of the film are "The usurper". They are uttered by the Perlmans' only child – their son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who is seventeen. He stands at an upstairs window with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel) and watches Oliver below, fearful that the American may break the reigning peace. The Professor is more welcoming, and he proposes a kind of free trade, both spatial and emotional, that will resound throughout. "Our home is your home", he says to Oliver. "My room is your room", Elio adds, a few seconds later, like an echo. He has moved into the adjoining room for the duration of Oliver's stay, and they must share a bathroom. The sharing will deepen, from handshakes to confidences, and from cigarettes to kisses and other mouthly charms, concluding in the most profound exchange of all, whispered from a few inches' distance and proclaimed in the title of the movie.
"Call Me by Your Name" is, among other things, an exercise in polyglottery, and Elio chats to his parents and friends in an easy blend of English, French, and Italian, sometimes sliding between tongues in the course of a single conversation. (Who would guess that a household, no less than a city, can be a melting pot?) His father and Oliver enjoy a clash of wits about the twisted root of the word "apricot", tracing it through Arabic, Latin, and Greek, and mentioning that one branch leads to the word "precocious" – a nod to Elio, who listens to them with half a smile. He is a prodigy, voraciously bookish, who plays Bach al fresco on the guitar and then inside on the piano, in the manner of Liszt and of Busoni, with Oliver standing in the background, contrapposto, with the elegant tilt of a statue, drinking in the sound and the skill. "Is there anything you don"t know?" he asks, after Elio has told him about an obscure, bloody battle of the First World War.
Prodigies can be a pain, onscreen and off, and Elio – fevered with boyish uncertainties and thrills, though no longer a boy, and already rich in adult accomplishments, yet barely a man – should be an impossible role. Somehow, as if by magic, Chalamet makes it work, and you can't imagine how the film could breathe without him. His expression is sharp and inquisitive, but cream-pale and woundable, too, and saved from solemnity by the grace of good humor; when Oliver says that he has to take care of some business, Elio retorts by impersonating him to his face. Chalamet is quite something, but Hammer is a match for him, as he needs to be, if the characters' passions are to be believed. Elio is taken aback, at the start, by Oliver's swagger – the hesitant youth, steeped in Europe, confronted with can-do American chops. Hammer doesn't strut, but his every action, be it dismounting a bicycle, draining a glass of juice (apricot, of course), slinging a backpack over his shoulder, rolling sideways into a pool, or demolishing a boiled egg at breakfast until it's a welter of spilled yolk suggests a person almost aggressively at home in his own body, and thus in the larger world. Hence the abrupt note that he sends to Elio: "Grow up. See you at midnight".
You could, I suppose, regard Oliver as the incarnation of soft power. Certainly, his handsomeness is so extreme that the camera tends to be angled up at him, as if at one of the ancient bronze deities over which the Professor enthuses. When Oliver wades in a cold stream one glorious day, you stare at him and think, My God, he is a god. And yet, as he and Elio lounge on sun-warmed grass, it's Oliver who seems unmanned, and it's Elio who lays a purposeful hand directly on Oliver's crotch. Now one, now the other appears the more carnally confident of the two. They take a while to find parity and poise, but, once they do, they are inextricable, rendered equal by ardor; the first shot of them, at dawn, after they sleep together, is of limbs so entangled that we can’t tell whose are whose. As for their parting, it is wordless. They look at one another and just nod, as if to say, Yes, that was right. That was how it is meant to be.
The screenplay of "Call Me by Your Name", adapted from André Aciman's novel of the same title, is by James Ivory. He has done a remarkable job, paring away pasts and futures, and leaving us with an overwhelming surge of now. On the page, events are recounted, in the first person, by an older Elio, gazing backward, but Chalamet's Elio lacks the gift of hindsight. In any case, why is it a gift? Who wouldn't prefer to be in the thick of love? The book is a mature and thoughtful vintage; in the film, we're still picking the grapes.
It's tempting to speculate how Ivory, who, as the director of "A Room with a View" (1985) and of "Maurice" (1987), showed his mastery of Italian settings and of same-sex romance, might have fared at the helm of the new film. The rhythm, I suspect, would have been more languorous, as if the weather had seeped into people’s lazy bones, whereas Guadagnino, an instinctive modernist, is more incisive. He and his longtime editor, Walter Fasano, keep cutting short the transports of delight; the lovers pedal away from us, on bikes, to the lovely strains of Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite", only for the scene to hit the brakes. "Call Me by Your Name" is suffused with heat, and piled high with fine food, but it isn't a nice movie; you see it not to unwind but to be wound up – to be unrelaxed by the force with which rapture strikes. There is even a gratifying cameo by a peach, which proves useful in an erotic emergency, and merits an Academy Award for Best Supporting Fruit.
The film's release could not be more propitious. So assailed are we by reports of harmful pleasures, and of the coercive male will being imposed through lust, that it comes as a relief to be reminded, in such style, of consensual joy. "I don't want either of us to pay for this", Oliver says. By falling for each other, he and Elio tumble not into error, still less into sin, but into a sort of delirious concord, which may explain why Elio's parents, far from disapproving, bestow their tacit blessing on the pact. More unusual still is that the movie steers away from the politics of sexuality. Elio makes love to Marzia, on a dusty mattress, in a loft like an old dovecote, only hours before he meets with Oliver at midnight, but you don't think, Oh, Elio's having straight sex, followed by gay sex, and therefore we must rank him as bi-curious. Rather, you are curious about him and his paramours as individuals – these particular bodies, with these hungry souls, at these ravening moments in their lives. Desire is passed around the movie like a dish, and the characters are invited to help themselves, each to his or her own taste. Maybe a true love story (and when did you last see one of those?) has no time for types.
Not that anything endures. Late in the film, the Professor sits with his son on a couch, smokes, and talks of what has occurred. We expect condescension, instead of which we hear a confession. "I envy you", he tells Elio, adding, "We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty". He once came near, he admits, to having what Elio and Oliver had, but something stood in the way, and he advises his child to seize the day, including the pain that the day brings, while he is still young: "Before you know it, your heart is worn out". Much of this long speech is taken from Aciman's novel, but Stuhlbarg delivers it beautifully, with great humility, tapping his cigarette. After which, it seems only natural that so rich a movie should close with somebody weeping, beside a winter fire. The shot lasts for minutes, as did the final shot of Michael Haneke's "Hidden" (2005), but Haneke wanted to stoke our paranoia and our dread, while Guadagnino wants us to reflect, at our leisure, on love: on what a feast it can be, on how it turns with the seasons, and on why it ends in tears.*
* This article appears in the print edition of the December 4, 2017, issue, with the headline "Intertwined".
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay by James Ivory, based on "Call Me by Your Name" by André Aciman
Produced by Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, Rodrigo Teixeira, Marco Morabito, James Ivory, Howard Rosenman
Timothée Chalamet..........Elio Perlman
Michael Stuhlbarg..........Lyle Perlman
Amira Casar..........Annella Perlman
Victoire Du Bois..........Chiara
Cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Film Editing by Walter Fasano
Production Design by Samuel Deshors
Art Direction by Roberta Federico
Costume Design by Giulia Piersanti
Makeup Department: Fernanda Perez
Countries: Italy, United States, Brazil, France
Language: English, Italian, French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 132 minutes
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"Call Me by Your Name" is far and away the best movie of the year
By Christy Lemire
November 20, 2017
Luca Guadagnino's films are all about the transformative power of nature – the way it allows our true selves to shine through and inspires us to pursue our hidden passions. From the wild, windswept hills of "I Am Love" to the chic swimming pool of "A Bigger Splash", Guadagnino vividly portrays the outside world as almost a character in itself – driving the storyline, urging the other characters to be bold, inviting us to feel as if we, too, are a part of this intoxicating atmosphere.
Never has this been more true than in "Call Me by Your Name", a lush and vibrant masterpiece about first love set amid the warm, sunny skies, gentle breezes and charming, tree-lined roads of northern Italy. Guadagnino takes his time establishing this place and the players within it. He's patient in his pacing, and you must be, as well. But really, what's the rush? It's the summer of 1983, and there's nothing to do but read, play piano, ponder classic art and pluck peaches and apricots from the abundant fruit trees.
Within this garden of sensual delights, an unexpected yet life-changing romance blossoms between two young men who initially seem completely different on the surface.
17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is once again visiting his family's summer home with his parents: his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an esteemed professor of Greco-Roman culture, and his mother (Amira Casar), a translator and gracious hostess. Elio has the gangly body of a boy but with an intellect and a quick wit beyond his years, and the worldliness his parents have fostered within him at least allows him to affect the façade of sophistication. But beneath the bravado, a gawky and self-conscious kid sometimes still emerges. By the end of the summer, that kid will be vanquished forever.
An American doctoral student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for the annual internship Elio's father offers. Oliver is everything Elio isn't – or at least, that's our primary perception of him. Tall, gorgeous and supremely confident, he is the archetypal all-American hunk. But as polite as he often can be, Oliver can also breeze out of a room with a glib, "Later", making him even more of a tantalizing mystery.
Chalamet and Hammer have just ridiculous chemistry from the get-go, even though (or perhaps because) their characters are initially prickly toward each other: testing, pushing, feeling each other out, yet constantly worrying about what the other person thinks. They flirt by trying to one-up each other with knowledge of literature or classical music, but long before they ever have any physical contact, their electric connection is unmistakable. Lazy poolside chats are fraught with tension; spontaneous bike rides into town to run errands feel like nervous first dates.
Writer James Ivory's generous, sensitive adaptation of Andre Aciman's novel reveals these characters and their ever-evolving dynamic in beautifully steady yet detailed fashion. And so when Elio and Oliver finally dare to reveal their true feelings for each other – a full hour into the film – the moment makes you hold your breath with its intimate power, and the emotions feel completely authentic and earned.
The way Elio and Oliver peel away each other's layers has both a sweetness and a giddy thrill to it, even though they feel they must keep their romance a secret from Elio's parents. (Elio also has a kinda-sorta girlfriend in Marzia (Esther Garrel), a thoughtful, playful French teen who's also in town for the summer.) One of the many impressive elements of Chalamet's beautiful, complex performance is the effortless way he transitions between speaking in English, Italian and French, depending on whom Elio is with at the time. It gives him an air of maturity that's otherwise still in development; eventually his massive character arc feels satisfying and true.
But Oliver's evolution is just as crucial, and Hammer finds the tricky balance between the character's swagger and his vulnerability as he gives himself over to this exciting affair. He's flirty but tender – the couple's love scenes are heartbreaking and intensely erotic all at once – and even though he's the more experienced of the two, he can't help but diving in headlong.
And yet, the most resonant part of "Call Me by Your Name" may not even be the romance itself, but rather the lingering sensation that it can't last, which Guadagnino evokes through long takes and expert use of silence. A feeling of melancholy tinges everything, from the choice of a particular shirt to the taste of a perfectly ripe peach. And oh my, that peach scene – Guadagnino was wise when he took a chance and left it in from the novel. It really works, and it's perhaps the ultimate example of how masterfully the director manipulates and enlivens all of our senses.
There's a lushness to the visual beauty of this place, but it’s not so perfect as to be off-putting. Quite the opposite. Despite the director's infamous eye for meticulous detail, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's 35mm images provide a tactile quality that heightens the sensations, makes them feel almost primal. We see the wind gently rustling through the trees, or streaks of sunlight hitting Elio's dark curls through an open bedroom window, and while it's all subtly sensual, an inescapable tension is building underneath.
Guadagnino establishes that raw, immediate energy from the very beginning through his use of music. The piano of contemporary classical composer John Adams' intricate, insistent "Hallelujah Junction - 1st Movement" engages us during the elegant title sequence, while Sufjan Stevens' plaintive, synthy "Visions of Gideon" during the film's devastating final shot ends the film on an agonizingly sad note. (You'll want to stay all the way through the closing credits – that long, last image is so transfixing. I seriously don't know how Chalamet pulled it off, but there is serious craft on display here.)
In between is Guadagnino's inspired use of the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way", an iconic '80s New Wave tune you've probably heard a million times before but will never hear the same way again. The first time he plays it, it’s at an outdoor disco where Oliver feels so moved by the bouncy, percussive beat that he can't help but jump around to it and get lost in the music, lacking all sense of self-consciousness. Watching this towering figure just go for it on the dance floor in his Converse high-tops is a moment of pure joy, but it's also as if a dam has broken within Elio, being so close to someone who's feeling so free. The second time he plays it, toward the end of Oliver and Elio's journey, it feels like the soundtrack to a time capsule as it recaptures a moment of seemingly endless emotional possibility.
They know what they've found has to end – we know it has to end. But a beautiful monologue from the always excellent Stuhlbarg as Elio's warmhearted and open-minded father softens the blow somewhat. It's a perfectly calibrated scene in a film full of them, and it's one of a million reasons why "Call Me by Your Name" is far and away the best movie of the year.
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|James Ivory, screenwriter of Call Me by Your Name, took home the Oscar|
for Best Adapted Screenplay at the age of 89, making him the oldest recipient
in the history of the Oscars.