Call Me By Your Name: A
This article contains plot details.
Mid-way through Luca Guadagnino’s new film ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ adapted from André Aciman’s book of the same name, a college professor, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) takes his son Elio (Tomothé Chalamet) and his grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) on a trip to the beach to see an archeological find being dredged up. An ancient statue, dappled in sunlight and gorgeously framed by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, is brought to the surface. Perlman is fascinated and holds the discovery in reverence; the other two play with it. Oliver holds out the statue’s dismembered hand for Elio to hold. Oliver’s studies and Perlman’s research have brought them here, yet the past is keeping them apart. Nothing particular in their own past, but Elio feels that a charming young man such as Oliver should be attracted to the many women who surround him early on in the film, not a skinny young boy such as himself. Yet these feelings, these forbidden desires, these unrequited loves, much like the relics on the beach, eventually bubble up to the surface.
The film radiates warmth. Set over a single summer in the bright Italian sun, ‘Call Me’ is slow, often lethargic, reflecting the endlessness of summer days, which come and go, blending into each other, seeming like they go on forever, until one day September arrives, and the routines and expectations of life set in again. The lack of urgency in the pacing is what allows for subconscious desires and urges to be dredged up. Over the course of the film, Elio and Oliver learn to confront their feelings for the other. Elio’s coming-of-age journey is intertwined with his coming out – neither story threatens to overtake the other, rather they exist in harmony. They are the same story. Elio’s realization and consumption of his desire for Oliver is his journey into adulthood. During breakfast one day, Elio brags to both his father and Oliver how he ‘could have had sex’ with a girl named Marzia (Esther Garrel). While outwardly he is acting in the stereotypical way of many post-pubescent, 17-year-old boys, he is looking for Oliver’s reaction, to see if this proud declaration of heterosexual (near) achievement provokes any feelings within Oliver. Elio’s sexual experiences are not presented, not as a deception or a conforming, but the actions of a teenage boy exploring himself and his desires.
Guadagnino refuses to relegate Elio’s desire to speech – the dialogue never labels his sexuality or calls it into question. Rather, Guadagnino uses long, sustained shots which focus intensely on Elio’s gaze. Early on, the film spends many scenes depicting Elio alone, normally reading, and pans towards Oliver, surrounded by others in the hot Italian sun wearing only shorts (the films costume design is noteworthy, successfully acting as a representation of the characters whilst fitting in to the particularized time and place), only to pan back to Elio, now gazing at Oliver.
Guadagnino accompanies these scenes with a particular leitmotif which recurs whenever Elio and Oliver are together. The music is light and free, and perfectly pairs with the carefree imagery of the summer days. Most notably, the film includes two original songs by indie darling Sufjan Stevens (and one remix of an earlier song), making it (astonishingly) the first major film to have found a cinematic use for the tenderness that radiates from Stevens’ music. During one scene Guadagnino is comfortable enough to simply let the music play while his camera remains fixed on Chalamet’s face, allowing his expressions and Steven’s lyrics to carry the scene.
The film tells its story subtly, with dozens of these beautifully constructed elongated takes in which Hammer and Chalet communicate in small gestures more than most actors do in grand speeches. In one pivotal scene, the camera effortlessly glides alongside Elio as he and Oliver walk from the post office square through the town, past a WWI monument. The monument separates them as they discuss it, and their language become vague, signaling to the audience that they are no longer talking about the monument. Elio implies his feelings, but suggests his inability to talk about them. The camera gazes up at the stone soldier atop the monument. A musical cue returns, and the camera settles down at Elio and Oliver, together, both aware of their desire for the other. Rather than dialogue, their emotions are communicated through camerawork, blocking, music, and the actors’ body language.
During another scene set in the square, Elio remarks that his family and Oliver are ‘probably the only Jews to have ever set foot in this town’. The film is unabashedly gay and Jewish (why aren’t there more gay Jewish films!) and in lines such as this, Elio’s Judaism can be interpreted as a stand-in for queerness, a facet of his identity that he shares with Oliver, yet at this point in time, only one of these facets can he speak openly of. The cliche in many lesser films featuring queer relationships involves tension manufactured by fear of the character’s parents finding out, and the successive reprisal, a trope that, while very much true to reality, has been done to death in film. ‘Call Me’ understands not only that parents can be accepting, but that they were once young and full of desire too. Stuhlbarg, who embodies much of the Judaism of the film (unsurprising given the actor’s notable portrayal of Jewish characters such as Larry Gopnik in ‘A Serious Man’), effortlessly breathes life into the stereotype of the kindly professor. In a intensely emotional scene, Elio’s father proclaims not only his approval of Elio and Oliver’s relationship, but suggests a similar experience of his own. Mr. Perlman implores Elio to confront his emotions; ‘right now there’s sorrow, pain…and with it the joy you felt’. Love and hurt exist alongside each other. ‘Don’t kill it.’