I was just starting to think the 90th Academy Award nominations weren’t all that impressive. Then I watched CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, and thank goodness I did. This is one of the most powerful, thoughtful and heartfelt dramas of recent years.
Gifted teenager Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) long Italian summer with his family is rocked by the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a mature student on placement with his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Though standoffish to the newcomer at first, the pair’s relationship soon blossoms to a full-blown romance, one that will change at least one of their lives forever.
It took me a while to get used to the pace of this one. I’d describe it as languid or leisurely, completely befitting the Mediterranean setting. It’s a long film, and might feel longer were it not for these characters, but they quickly grow to fascinate you and the passage of time becomes unnoticeable. I adored this strange but natural developing relationship, from apathy to open hostility to grudging friendship and finally passionate physical attraction. Elio and Oliver are both proud, troubled, brilliant men who become the best versions of themselves together, as tragically fleeting as their summer dalliance is. Elio shows off, Oliver dismisses him, and both compete for the affections of the locals and Elio’s family. Their love scenes are tender and real, but tastefully handled. This isn’t just for the sake of studios squeamish about portraying gay sex, either. Both Elio’s intimate scenes with women and with Oliver are handled in the same manner. The more disturbing potential of their age gap is avoided because of one key concept: consent. This is not a one-way relationship.
Distance is used in some really interesting ways by director Luca Guadagnino and DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. When Elio comes clean about his feelings for Oliver, they are working their way around opposite sides of a WWI memorial, never mind making eye contact, they can seldom even see each other at this key moment. More often than not the camera pulls back and takes the characters in as part of the landscape, their big beautiful emotions and experiences swallowed up by the even bigger, more beautiful landscape. The sun-drenched Italian countryside couldn’t look more enticing, yet it hides pain and heartbreak in equal measure to passion and elation. Is there a word like “bittersweet” but for a bright summer’s day? That’s what Call Me by Your Name is.
This is the kind of work Armie Hammer excels at. Despite his looks, he is not a Hollywood lead, he is, and always will be, a character actor. You completely get why Elio falls head-over-heels for Oliver, why their meeting matters. Their scenes together positively crackle, but the simple purity of the film’s final flourish is completely reliant on the skills of one talented actor conveying a storm of repressed emotions. There is nowhere to hide here, and it is here that Timothée Chalamet becomes a star by staring, utterly distraught, past the camera and the stages of grief overwhelm him.
As stunning as Call Me by Your Name’s final shot is, the film’s best scene, indeed the best scene of 2017 comes a little earlier and it is typified by a some wonderful small moments between Chalamet and Stuhlbarg. If you take nothing else away from the film, take this quote about young love: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of 30, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new”. The scene plays out unexpectedly and refreshingly honestly, it accepts that first love may feel like the end of the world when it ends, but it is not the be-all and end-all.
This is a story of first love and sexual awakening that is optimistic but also realistic. As Elio’s story, we see his world glimmer with new possibilities during the good times and get plunged into blackness in the bad. The chemistry at the story’s core makes all this work and the craft, from the locations, filming and sensitive adaptation of the source novel elevates the whole package to something gorgeous enough to hang in a gallery. SSP