Elio Perlman is spending the summer with his family at their vacation home in Lombardy, Italy. When his father hires a handsome doctoral student, the curious 17-year-old finds himself developing a growing attraction to the young man.
The swooning reverence and tearful adulation that have already met Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name might lead one to expect a sumptuously shot and overblown tragic gay love story. Instead, this languid film, known as the third and final instalment in Guadagnino’s ‘Desire Trilogy’, after I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015), is full of quiet moments and subtle gestures. The cinematography is naturalistic, perhaps even under-lit at times, and there’s a surprising absence of big dramatic confrontations. The focus is firmly upon the performances – and what performances they are – in this tale of the sexual awakening of Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a precociously intelligent 17-year-old.
Based on the much-loved novel of the same by André Aciman and adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory fame), the story is set in the summer of 1983 at an idyllic 17th Century villa somewhere in Northern Italy. The glorious old house, complete with heavily laden peach trees, ramshackle lawns and a stone-paved swimming pool, belongs to Elio’s family. His talkative father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Classics professor, while his mother (Amira Casar) is a translator. It’s unremarkable for these people to speak four languages and to lie on the couch, limbs thrown across each other, reading aloud from a book of ancient German fairytales; or for Elio to spend his days transcribing music and playing Bach on the piano, while flirting halfheartedly with girls in the village.
Loping into this civilised European world is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American graduate student who has come to spend the summer with the professor. From the moment he unwinds his lanky 6 foot 5 frame from a poky little car, throwing himself down into a deep sleep on Elio’s bed, Oliver is a disruptive force, both attractive and infuriating – recalling just a little of Ralph Fiennes’ loud outsider charisma in A Bigger Splash. We meet Oliver from Elio’s perspective, observing his almost aggressive American casualness, whether he’s cracking a boiled egg with a violent smash of his spoon, swigging water from someone else’s bottle, or massaging a cold shoulder. Even the way he says ‘Later’ as a form of goodbye or dismissal becomes a recurrent joke on cultural difference.
And yet Oliver is gorgeous. Guadagnino and his DOP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Suspiria) shoot him mostly from low angles and at a certain distance to fully appreciate Hammer’s tall and graceful blonde physicality, especially when he’s dancing (now famously) to ‘Love My Way’ by The Psychedelic Furs, or when he’s playing volleyball without his shirt on. Close-ups are rationed to those parts of the film where Elio himself is up close to the object of his desire. While there are scenes heavy with spoken dialogue, often delivered as a duel or a dance, this is a film most interested in the way bodies communicate in space, in all their awkwardness and elegance.
This is a film most interested in the way bodies communicate in space, in all their awkwardness and elegance.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this story is the way its gayness is both a big deal and almost incidental. The physical encounters between the two men (one of them experienced, the other barely legal but fully consenting) must happen in secret and so carry a clandestine charge. And yet Elio’s parents are the model of Liberal acceptance when the affair comes to light. These parents are warm, wise and indulgent. If there’s any criticism one might have of the film it’s that these scenes play like a wish fulfilment fairytale, complete with preachy father-son speech to comfort Elio at the end of summer.
The biggest achievement of Call Me by Your Name is that it manages to depict something universal about first love and first loss – the confusion, the fear, the irritation and self-loathing as well as the hunger and the euphoria of finally feasting upon the beloved. And then there’s the fact that you’ll never be able to eat a juicy peach in quite the same way afterwards.
LISTEN: We look back at the Best & Worst movies and TV shows of 2017
Watch 'Call Me By Your Name'
Friday 5 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand for 14 days)
Saturday 6 March, 11:30pm on SBS
Italy, France, 2017
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English, Italian
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg