It was the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy. The sun-drenched town that houses this story is one of rustic, Old World charm. It’s one of those villages that you would imagine looked the same 100 years prior, and will look the same in another 100 years. The days were long and hot, but the nights pulsated to the sounds of New Wave radio. Youth springs eternal in this town, but Call Me by Your Name opens on images of ancient Greek and Roman statues. These relics of ancient beauty and fortitude now crumble under the weight of time. Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose country villa serves as the setting for much of the film, studies these ancient sculptors and admires their “ageless ambiguity.” Of course, this phrase could also be used to describe the film itself.
Based on a 2007 book of the same title, Call Me by Your Name tells the story of a formative summer in the life of Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a slender Jewish-American teenager whose family spends holidays at their Italian villa. Extremely precocious but lacking in confidence, he spends his days reading and transcribing sheet music before meeting up with a group of local friends. Time moves slowly for Elio, until a graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives to study under his father, the professor. Elio acts as Oliver’s tour guide, showing him around town and introducing him to the locals. Oliver takes up the room adjacent to Elio’s, and they soon develop a great friendship and discover mutual attraction in one another. Living together, Elio and Oliver begin to spend nearly every moment together, and this time gives way to simmering sexual tension and unbounded desire. They see themselves in each other—Oliver laments his fleeting youth, while Elio has grown tired of his.
We can tell that the attraction is mutual, but Elio and Oliver struggle to express this desire, especially since homosexuality was very much a taboo in 1983. They find themselves drifting apart, avoiding one another in order to direct their sexual energy elsewhere. They both find girlfriends, but Elio can’t help being drawn back to Oliver’s magnetism. Eventually, Elio works up the courage to tell Oliver how he feels, only after pondering a fairytale his mother reads him. She tells him about a knight, who struggles to express his love for a Queen—the key line in the story, being, “Is it better to speak or die?” Elio chooses life, and after some tumult and callow anxiety, an intimate relationship of bracing romance blossoms before our eyes.
If it wasn’t obvious already, Call Me by Your Name is one of the best films of the year, and this is due, in part, to its timeless quality. The Italian village seems unphased by the modern world, and this luscious backdrop is complemented by the elegance of the piano score that gives the film an enduring quality. At least three different languages are spoken in the film, and it’s brimming with references to the best works of art and literature in history. Elio talks about his love of Bach and Liszt, Oliver reads about Heidegger in the sun, and a couple laments the death of Bunuel. Guadagnino’s wandering camera focuses in on little details, drawing our attention to an enticing plate of ripe apricots or a refreshing splash of cool water. The film’s sensual style, along with its extensive referencing of the canon of art, gives it a distinct universality, unhinged to time.
The aesthetic beauty of Call Me by Your Name is certainly part of its appeal, as every image is saturated with people and places that seem almost too beautiful to be real. In that way, the film seems like a fairytale, or a nostalgic memory of a time long gone. Elio’s coming-of-age is so true and heartbreaking, in a way, because he comes to realize that everything he now likes must come to an end. Eventually, he’ll leave Italy, go back to the U.S., finish school, and eventually move onto college. Part of coming of age is recognizing that almost everything is transient, and Elio begins to realize that this summer romance may just become a memory of temporary bliss and unadulterated beauty—not unlike the ancient sculptures his father studies.
Featured Image By Sony Pictures