A giant clay statue stands proudly in the centre of a small Italian town, casting shadows over run down cafés while locals lazily sip their espressos and chain smoke on the cobbled pavement, sheltering themselves from the midday heat. Dappled sunlight bounces from every curve and crevice of the sculpture as two young men circle it in awe. Elio, a seventeen-year-old inexperienced but intellectually curious polyglot, recalls the history of a World War I battle that led to the creation of the statue. Oliver, confident in his twenty-something years, listens with rapture. “Is there anything you don’t know?” he asks Elio. “If only you knew how little I know about the things that matter,” Elio responds.
Things that matter linger throughout every scene in this film. In this tale of polite friendship turned genuine friendship turned true, infatuating, inimitable love, Italian director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) has introduced us to one of the most intimate love stories in recent cinematic history. Love that rips at the heart then pervades every corner of our foggy minds. Love that is both electrifying and destructive, forcing us to reckon with emotions we so frequently dismiss while prompting us to celebrate courage and vulnerability.
The film is set in a stunning Italian villa surrounded by lush green orchards, peppered with fruit trees varying from peach to apple to plum. Small pools with rusted water fountains are scattered around the grounds; a tennis court stretches across the garden, overwhelming in its size and beauty. The location of the villa is marked by the opening credits as “Somewhere in Northern Italy”, although the filming location has since been confirmed as Crema—familiar territory for Guadagnino who currently lives in the area. It is the summer of 1983, and Oliver (Armie Hammer) has recently arrived in Italy to stay with Elio’s family while undertaking a six-week archaeology internship with Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) father (an excellent Michael Stuhlbarg).
“In this tale of polite friendship turned genuine friendship turned true, infatuating, inimitable love, Italian director Luca Guadagnino has introduced us to one of the most intimate love stories in recent cinematic history.”
Elio plays host and tour guide to Oliver, showing him the local town and secret watering holes nestled in leafy terrains alongside dirt roads. Over the course of the six weeks, Oliver and Elio’s hesitant friendship evolves into a sensual and authentic romance: seductive, physical, gut-wrenchingly emotional.
During the summer, their days are spent either working or reading, playing music or cycling through the idyllic Italian fields. Music surrounds the family constantly and the edges of the rooms are defined by books climbing up the walls. Evenings are spent outside, filled with wine and intellectual discourse. No one here is inferior—everyone has an opinion, and every opinion is heard and considered.
In this way, Luca creates a warm and welcoming environment: the characters here are open, sincere and gentle to the bone. The screenplay—written by James Ivory—is intimate from the beginning, led mostly by Chalamet who portrays a boy on the cusp of adolescence with such tender naivety and erotic yearning that it’s near impossible to tear your eyes from him on screen. His coming of age is uncomfortable, delicate, and, most of all, familiar.
Guadagnino has never been one to shy away from physicality or sexuality in any form. There is a particularly prolific scene where Elio picks a few peaches from the orchard and takes them to the attic to eat in the afternoon sun. As he tears the stone from the pit, the lines of the peach resemble that of a round but firm buttocks. He masturbates into the fruit; an innocent exploration that is born from curiosity and sexual awakening. It is a bridging of gaps between Elio and his desires. The scene flows from intensely erotic to agonisingly sad within seconds; it is Elio in all of his defenselessness—a young boy figuring out the boundaries of his body and what it means to be sexual. Oliver, who enters the room moments after the act, is eager to to touch and taste the dripping peach. It is not fodder or porn: it is a seminal moment between two boys who are on the cusp of love and lust, desperate to know each other and to taste, smell and touch all that the other has to offer. It is reminiscent of our first moments in love, so heady and saturated in the other.
While Guadagnino is a master at bringing out these kinds of performances, both Hammer and Chalamet own the vulnerability that is thrust upon them. They are emotionally raw, exhibiting a kind of nakedness and chemistry that is rarely seen on film. The fact that this is a love story between two men is of utmost importance in LGBTIQ history and representation, yet is also irrelevant because the emotions and experiences tied to love are common between us all. Guadagnino teamed with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this film—their first collaboration. Nothing is treated with preciousness or ceremony; both director and cinematographer allow the story to reveal itself organically. With much of the film set outside, or in sun-kissed rooms, even the light of the film is natural. Each scene moves slowly and steadily: a gentle pace that prevents you from restlessly shuffling in your seat, but rather allows you to immerse yourself wholly in this world. Warm tones seep through each frame, drowning the viewer in the visual stimuli of an Italian summer escape. For a country drenched in romance and history, and so well associated with love and passion, there couldn’t be a more fitting canvas for our tale of modern love to unfold.
“Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully erotic and triumphant reminder of love in its finest and darkest hours. It reminds us to be bold, to pull the scaffolding from our broken hearts and reach out to those we love.”
Adding to the film’s soft romanticism are the three songs written by Sufjan Stevens. One is a piano remix of his Age of Adz hit ‘Futile Devices’ while the other songs (‘Mystery of Love’ and ‘Visions of Gideon’) were scored for specific scenes in the film. Sufjan’s vocals are fitting: they seem to be whispered as well as sung, and gently add to each moment on screen. ‘Visions of Gideon’ is the last sound we hear before the credits roll. As Elio reflects on his life and the summer gone, somewhat ready to jump and somewhat pushed from the cliff of his adolescence directly into adulthood, there could be no better song to accompany our final image of him. I found myself holding my breath in the cinema, caught in that brief moment between elation and sadness. Had you touched me at the moment the song played, I feel sure I might have shattered.
Love can leave its mark in mysterious, and often invisible ways. It can be silently carried with us for years, or brashly declared in days. Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully erotic and triumphant reminder of love in its finest and darkest hours. It reminds us to be bold, to pull the scaffolding from our broken hearts and reach out to those we love—those we’ve always loved, and those we might one day love.
Call Me By Your Name by Luca Guadagnino (2017), 132 minutes, Italy