Luca Guadagnino’s latest was the best film of Sundance 2017… and remains one of the best this year.
Love can last a lifetime even if those we love are no longer in our lives – the immediacy and the passion may end, but the love endures. It’s one of the great joys and great pains of being human, and it’s a feeling explored with vitality, affection, and beauty in Luca Guadagnino’s gloriously romantic and sexy new film, Call Me By Your Name.
It’s 1983, and teenaged Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is enjoying the summer with his parents at their home in Northern Italy. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a history professor of sorts who welcomes a graduate student each year for several weeks to work alongside him, and as the film opens an American named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives. Elio is immediately taken by Oliver’s confidence, charisma, and strapping frame, but while it’s visible to viewers he tries to keep these feelings close to his chest. Oliver picks up on it anyway, but while their shared desire is evident neither seem all that sure on how to proceed.
They dance around each other – Elio brags about almost having sex with a female friend, Oliver calls out his behavior at one point telling him to grow up – but for all their movement it’s clear which direction they’re heading. Time spent in town or at a nearby swimming hole sees their mutual attraction grow, and it’s an evolution that occurs with nervousness but without urgency or excessive dialogue.
We stay with Elio and watch him go about his days, some with Oliver and others with only the anticipation of Oliver, and the sense of young/first love hangs recognizably in the air for viewers to savor and let trigger our own memories of loves past. Chalamet perfectly expresses a teenager’s confusion and response to unexpected but welcome feelings of intense attraction, and his behaviors are alternately restrained and jump-started by the hormonal cauldron of youth. He’s onscreen through most of the film, and he remains throughout the end credits with a silence that pulls at the heartstrings even as it strengthens and emboldens the heart itself. Hammer seems destined to surprise viewers with a performance that takes full advantage of his chiseled looks while also revealing nuance, passion, and regret. Many gay love stories pair the connection with conflict or tragedy, but here the biggest challenge is within and between these two – and it’s more enthralling and captivating than any artificial plot construct.
The developing romance between the two young men is the film’s focus, but Guadagnino and co-writers James Ivory and Walter Fasano, from André Aciman’s 2007 novel, are telling a love story for the ages. From the opening credits’ photographs of Italian sculptures to ancient statues rescued from the sea to the living, breathing bodies glimpsed gliding through water or stretched out across beds, there’s an undeniable appreciation of beauty here to be reveled in and digested into our souls. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom captures it all with the same exquisite eye he applies to Italy’s gorgeous, sun-dappled landscape, the warmth of the family’s home, and across every person who enters the frame, and Sufjan Stevens contributes three songs – including two new ones – that speak just as effortlessly and beautifully to the loves we’ve known.
There’s a universal affection here between friends, family, and strangers alike – from the traditional kiss on the cheek greetings to the physical closeness shared by Elio and his parents – and it adds a tenderness to the film. These people feel every bit as welcoming as does the family’s home, and that comfort extends throughout the film itself. Elio and Oliver don’t want the summer to end, we hope the film can go on indefinitely, and none of us will forget how lucky we are to have shared this experience. It does end of course, but among the many gifts we’re left with is a monologue from Elio’s father that speaks to family, acceptance, and the love on which the entire film is built. Stuhlbarg has become a master of shining in small roles, and that trend continues as his words here feel as if they’re being injected straight into our hearts.
Call Me By Your Name finds its power as much in anticipation and desire across a lazy summer as it does in the actual, eventual coupling. We see bodies in sexual motion, but while orgasms and seasons end it’s clear these feelings of love will go on.