Call Me By Your Name is Luca Guadagnino’s fifth feature. A nostalgic and lust-riddled Bildingsroman, the film was adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name. It catalogues a romance between a seventeen year old Italian-American boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and a visiting American scholar, Oliver (Armie Hammer) in 1980s summer, “somewhere in northern Italy”.
As with Luca Guadagnino’s prior feature, A Bigger Splash (2015), the director creates absorbing and immersive quality in attention to ‘trivialities’, the moments of cultural and contextual detail that colour the on-screen character’s experiences as much as our own. Just as in A Bigger Splash, Marianne and Harry watch the making of fresh ricotta in Pantelleria, Elio and Oliver linger over commemorative WWII statues, and find secret water-holes to lie beside in the sun, and antidote to the time-hungry and overwhelming motion of modern cinema. Characters are afforded the space to contemplate, and appreciate, affording us the same room as viewers.
Equal to the rhythm of the narrative, the blocking of Call Me By Your Name is immaculate — allowing us access to the expressions of characters that on-screen fellows are not privy to. There is a symmetry between blocking and symbolism as we watch Elio and Oliver circumnavigate the statue in the town circle, so their paths may intersect — albeit fleetingly, at the far side. Something close to comedy arises from the blatant imagery which could have been (non-tastefully) under played, but is instead conspicuously exploited, to the point of cringingly intimate use, re-sharpening the role of symbol in film — and reminding us of filmic intent, that props do not roll into the mise-en-scène unintentionally, but are placed there by design.
The soundtrack features some original songs by Sufjan Stevens, and some existing. The scored piano soundtrack (I was unable to hunt down the composer, as she/he/they have been obscured by the flurry of activity over Stevens’ songs, unless it was also Stevens himself who was composing) was complimentary to the simple, pragmatic beauty of the Italian summer. That said, the use of Sufjan Stevens angst-riddled and lyric-heavy songs was simultaneously too bold and directly linked with narrative events, yet equally appropriately teen-like and harmonious with ‘real-time’ events for Elio and Oliver. In an equivalent alchemy, the film is rife with symbols. The fetishizing of male bodies and of artistic form give this film a high-brow ‘self-awareness’ and breadth of imagery, yet remains accessible, reflecting on the ways music and image are conduits for our in-the-moment experiences.
What sets Call Me By Your Name apart from other coming-of-age-romances, particularly those with a focus on queer sexuality, is that it does not shy away from intimacy, or force is into a repression that manifests in other ways — the chewing of pencils or obsessions with teachers. Such repressions and ‘cutting away’ might have otherwise led us to believe that Oliver and Elio’s relationship as one of exploitation rather than mutual pleasure. Instead, there is no ‘light bulb’ moment for Elio. He is self-aware yet does not label himself, but instead (realistically to his precocious character) acts upon his desires, which makes his narrative of self-actualization one that lingers upon the positives of his relationships, rather than the limitations of them.
Whilst I appreciated the ‘ambiguity’ of sexuality portrayed in the film, with both Elio and Oliver’s sexual preferences remaining undefined and individualized, the women of the film are overlooked. Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio’s brief summer fling, gives an admirable — and largely unacknowledged — show of strength in forgiving Elio for his treatment of her, yet her role in his actualization is diffuse and peripheral. The mother, is a complex and wise character, Annella (Amira Cesar) but is left unexplored and undermined in the final bonding moments between Elio and his father. She is cast as an ignorant accessory to the family, rather than scholar, wit and structural support she is. In addition, the religious significance of Oliver and Elio’s relationship remains largely unexplored. Given the weight placed upon the Jewish-Italian-American heritage of the family, this seems like a point of conflict much broader and internal than what is portrayed within this film’s particular window.
This film is too immersive and captivating to conclude without dragging us with Elio’s heartbreak. Elio’s sorrow entombs us as the season shifts and snow falls — a near-sardonic show of pathetic fallacy, but a forgivable one, because the film did manage to leave a sad tang in my mouth, for all its bright positivity. Guadagnino got the salt and rubbed it in the wound, and our shared heartbreak with Elio is a testament to this film’s excellence.
WATCH…on the big screen. This film is beautifully shot, and worthy of the ticket price.
DOUBLE FEATURE WITH…For Guadagnino’s traits, watch A Bigger Splash for a bill that’ll give a dose of summer proper. For contrast, watch back to back with Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013), though be warned of the scandalous history to the filming.