Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In terms of sensuous Mediterranean landscapes cued as rhythmic visual romance, one should look no further than Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name; a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story illuminated by its exotic locale. Truthfully, Guadagnino has always been interested in narratives about desire and longing; with 2009's I Am Love and 2015's A Bigger Splash both using location, diegetic/non-diagetic music, and dreamy soft-focus lensing in order to lull the audience into a state of rapt affection. Call Me By Your Name is perhaps the most literal-minded love story of the three, but it's also the filmmaker's most earnestly heart-felt; the story of the bond between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and visiting older academic, Oliver (Armie Hammer) over the course of one lazy summer in Italy.
Unlike previous Guadagnino films, the aesthetic charms here are more restrained and less brash. There's no flashy dance sequence like in A Bigger Splash, for instance, or the kind of food fetish strangeness running throughout I Am Love. Instead, Guadagnino positions his actors against stunning backdrops, framing Oliver in particular as an Adonis-like statue to whom the inexperienced Elio is drawn. The film's use of music, from piano-laden motifs (which instruct the inner life of aspiring pianist, Elio) to songs written and sung by folk artist Sufijan Stevens, are also integral in establishing a mood of swirling romanticism. What transpires is at first a tentative flirtation between Elio and Oliver (there is a marked age difference), which then blossoms into something more deeply profound.
Adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 novel and taking place in 1984, Call Me By Your Name is thankfully free of the hand-wringing of many queer love stories, instead positioning Elio and Oliver's relationship as something both cautious and acceptable. To the latter point, Elio's father, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg, wonderful as always), who has taken Oliver in as his research assistant, is well aware of their growing connection and is surprisingly understanding. His lengthy monologue near the film's climax is both narratively contrived as well as dramatically moving; the kind of talky digression reserved for stage play exposition rather than real life. Stuhlbarg, however, makes the moment sting with the pang of truth.
If there's a flaw to Guadagnino's stylistic mode here, and its a minor problem, its that the more reserved mood seems to push down the unruly passions of his lead characters. Both Chalamet and Hammer are quite skilled at projecting the inner lives and outer lives of Elio and Oliver. The latter is head-strong and confident, but closed off emotionally, while the former is an inexperienced lover who nonetheless has the emotional risk-taking of youth on his side. However, the film's breezy casualness renders their love affair as something of a minor blip on life's journey. Surely, there's wisdom in the idea of experiencing something wild and untamed for only a brief moment; something that will especially inform Elio's maturation later in life, but Call Me By Your Name doesn't quite earn its gut-punch ending.
The film's final frames, which are given sensitivity and pathos by Chalamet, are nonetheless merely a marking of a young kid's inexperience rather than a fully-formed devastation which Guadagnino seems to be going for. Still, in one of the film's best sequences, Oliver's stoic facade drops for a moment, admiting Elio "knows more than anyone here" as the two circle each other separated by a WWI memorial. It's moments such as these that Call Me By Your Name truly soars; just the story of two men tentatively learning about one another, literally divided by history.