Call Me By Your Name
Updated: Dec 20, 2017
** PERVASIVE SPOILERS **
Late on in the movie Lady Bird, a kind nun asks Saoirse Ronan whether attention might not be a kind of love. That moment in one very good film came back to me while watching another currently in theaters which by chance also features the actor Timothée Chalamet. Call Me By Your Name, with its uncommonly observant characters and its moving depiction of first love, is a richly textured and deeply wonderful movie, and one that repays close critical attention with a kind of love all its own.
Chalamet plays Elio, a precocious seventeen-year-old boy spending a languid summer somewhere in northern Italy. Every summer, his parents invite a young academic to spend a few weeks with them surrounded by the ruins of antiquity; this year is the turn of Armie Hammer's Oliver, a vigorous American prone to leaping from moving bikes, demolishing boiled eggs with a single tap, and playing spirited rounds of volleyball. For much of the movie's first hour the two boys circle one another, notice one another, and, as their attraction grows, begin slowly but deliberately to reveal themselves.
Both are often shown in the act of paying attention: Elio with his Walkman on, carefully transcribing the music he's listening to; Oliver, with his etymologist's approach, thinking big thoughts about Heidegger and Heraclitus, and holding forth on the origins of the word apricot. Guadagnino's camera, too, notices. Subtly he registers the system of touches that pass between Elio and Oliver. Innocently he records Oliver's fingers stroking the lips of a statue raised from a lake - just as they will later graze Elio's. And knowingly he positions his bodies, rhyming a suggestive shot of a jet-lagged Oliver faceplanted in bed with a shot of Elio lying on his front to reach under his own bed for a notebook. The film is thoughtful like this; it grows ever larger with meaning.
The connections that this visual patterning evoke are part of what makes the movie such a sensationally successful adaptation of its source. André Aciman, who wrote the 2007 novel on which the film is based, is a Proust scholar, and the book's narrative voice (Elio's) is perhaps inevitably suggestive of its author's literary preoccupations. Book-Elio, for instance, is Marcel-ian in his tendency to over-interpret Oliver's words and actions. Guadagnino helps his viewers to do the same - partly by keeping Oliver at a physical distance from the camera (he is nowhere near as often in tight close-up as Elio), but mostly with the assistance of a beautifully ambiguous screenplay by James Ivory, which systematically queers scenes that might otherwise play straight. When Elio's father observes of the statues he's cataloguing, "Not a straight body in these statues... so nonchalant - hence their ageless ambiguity, as if they're daring you to desire them", even Oliver is visibly struck by what the professor may or may not be saying. Aciman's abundant wordplay, meanwhile, to be found not least in the almost erotic interpenetration of the names Elio and Oliver (the latter also containing a buried call to "live!"), is given almost musical expression when spoken aloud. And Guadagnino's clever soundtrack choices expand our sense of Elio's interiority at a diegetic and non-diegetic level, like when the Ravel suite he's picking out on the piano in one scene underscores a later sequence where he finally reveals his feelings to Oliver. (A perverse mind may even hear a pun on Ravel/reveal...)
The film would fail without a convincing Elio; Timothée Chalamet is exceptional. His performance is uncanny: an impulsive, magical creation, a pitch-perfect essay on the twilit country between boyhood and adulthood. As Elio, he communicates with his whole being, whether in the slow movement of his eyes or the unselfconscious and clambering ardor he unleashes whenever, in the film's second half, he and Hammer are alone. In their early experiments in touch, he opens like a reflex. He has an extraordinary ability to bypass cliché, as when, for instance, he goes in for his first kiss with Oliver and, at the last moment, slips his tongue out to lick Oliver's lips. He captures the clumsy physicality of adolescence in a way that's both charming and heartbreaking. (When, towards the end of the movie, his father remarks "Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once", we feel keenly the brevity of that youth.) He also speaks with a kind of impulsive urgency towards self-revelation. "Il est beau aussi, non?" he says when discussing Oliver with a girlfriend. Later, when Oliver asks why he needs to discuss his feelings, he tells him it's "Because I wanted you to know" a full four times, each time finding a new depth to the truth of what he's saying. He is utterly convincing.
The supporting cast are also marvelous. Hammer has always exuded confidence as a performer, and his mother-friendly manners and all-American take-it-easyness make him ideal for Oliver. Elio's parents are brought to life with huge warmth by Amira Casar, whose gently knowing eyes are a plausible genetic forebear of Chalamet's, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who executes the film's best speech ("Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot") with the precision and sensitivity of a pianist. It is more or less clear throughout that they know what's going on between Elio and Oliver; their participation in the pattern of noticing allows them to become almost facilitators in the boys' affair.
Guadagnino's own attention to detail is ultimately what allows us to share so completely his characters' experiences. Call Me By Your Name is a powerfully sensual film, full of surfaces penetrated (lakes, boiled eggs, fruit) and floating atmospheres (the drifting mist from a waterfall, the omnipresent flies of an Italian summer). The camera lingers on bodies in close-up, hands stroking legs, hair slicked back by lake water. Guadagnino takes his time to create a precise feeling for period and place, but it's notable that the kitsch on the soundtrack - Giorgio Moroder, Bandolero - and the sensational European fashions (so many short shorts, so many long legs) don't feel like filmmaker's shorthand; rather they are a necessary ingredient in the spell. All of this, we're being told, will pass: youth is not eternal, love is not forever. Though the film's pace is very much andante, the editing is occasionally savage, cutting short a moment or a look or a touch before we've had enough of it to form a comprehensive memory. In this way Guadagnino and his regular editor, Walter Fasano, are able to evoke vividly the swift passage of love and the painful impossibility of total recall. By contrast, one of the film's boldest moments formally - its final shot - is a minutes-long single-take close-up of Chalamet that, given adequate space, is allowed to develop into an unforgettable image of exquisite sorrow. In this moment, Elio makes clear that he will fulfill his father's suggestion that he not wish away his pain but rather seek to live through it in full color. It lands both for Elio and for us.
Call Me By Your Name | directed by Luca Guadagnino | released November 24, 2017 | 132 minutes | rated R for sexual content, nudity and some language