Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino, premiered at last year’s Sundance film festival, and was immediately swept up in what a lot of directors so desperately crave, the much-desired, elusive Oscar buzz™. Critics lavished praise on the film, which is based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, declaring it a swoon-worthy, sun-drenched masterpiece. Having seen the film, I too agree that it is heart-wrenchingly romantic and correspondingly life-ruining in the best possible way.
Set in the summer of 1983, the story takes place “somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the opening credits inform us, setting a tone of dreamy ambiguity. Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is a book-smart, music-transcribing seventeen-year-old whose father, an archaeology professor played by the inimitable Michael Stuhlbarg, invites a doctoral student to stay with them in their villa every summer, helping them revise their writings while they in return assist the professor with his research. This year the chosen student is the incredibly handsome, incredibly intelligent Oliver (Armie Hammer), and as the summer deepens, a faltering, feverish romance ensues between him and Elio. It is a film that one would classify as a slow-burner, but as Guadagnino put it, “desire is slow-burning,” and the pace is delectably languorous.
Chalamet is twenty-two and startlingly good as Elio, his first leading role. He portrays all the contradicting sides to the character with the utmost grace. Elio is energetic, restless and at times arrogant, sprawled on the couch, dancing around the villa, playing Bach “the way Busoni would have played it if he altered Liszt’s version,” limbs everywhere, charming his parents’ guests, mocking the way Oliver’s American drawl, but Chalamet’s portrait of Elio is also one that is completely vulnerable. That is not to say there are any typical Oscar-bait meltdown scenes of overwrought emotion and tears everywhere and ripping up paper or flinging vases at walls. Instead, the beauty of Chalamet’s performance lies in the little nuances and subtleties, the small, almost imperceptible movements, his complete understanding of Elio as a character, and the way he so heart-warmingly renders falling in love for the first time onscreen, twirling around upon receiving a secret note from Oliver, skipping in joy, stuttering here and there.
It is a performance that is, dare I say it, Oscar-worthy. Chalamet has already impressively been nominated for a Golden Globe for the film, placed in a category with Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks, Gary Oldman and Denzel Washington. While it is unlikely that the Academy will give him the Oscar, as they tend to give it to more experienced actors, the youngest ever Best Actor Oscar-winner being Adrien Brody, who was 29, it would be wonderful if he did somehow manage to break Brody’s record, and he certainly deserves a nomination at least.
Armie Hammer is good too, the perfect Oliver; endlessly charismatic, and the perfect counterbalance to Elio’s more jittery edge. Their chemistry is magnetic. Even the awkward in-between moments are mesmerising, moments when they are unsure if they should hug or not, brushing hands but not actually holding hands, trying not to cry, heart-shattering glances. And what is so refreshing about this film is that it being about two men is not a big deal- it is just a love story. Unlike a lot of other films about gay or bisexual characters, where there are antagonists watching from the sidelines, waiting to tear them apart, Call Me by Your Name allows them to just have a beautiful love story, a welcome step forward in the representation of sexuality in film.
Every inch of this film is saturated in immense beauty. The soundtrack is the most sublime mixture of overtly-sentimental early eighties pop, the glimmering unpredictability of “Une Barque sur l’océan,” one of Maurice Ravel’s dazzling compositions for piano, and the sensitivity contributed by the songs written for the film by Sufjan Stevens, with their gently plucked strings, and their hushed vocals acting a kind of voiceover for Elio. The summer in the Italian countryside is captured with the softness, verdancy and luxuriant use of colour of a Monet painting, while the colder indoor scenes have the airiness and lapis lazuli touches of a Vermeer. “Cinema isn’t the answer,” yaps an Italian couple that the family has over for dinner (in Italian- there are subtitles scattered throughout the film as the characters flit between French, Italian and English, adding a lovely authenticity and texture). “Cinema is a mirror of reality, and it’s a filter.” This metafictional remark is rather amusing in the context of what is a very aesthetically-conscious film, but Call Me by Your Name is certainly not just pretty for the sake of being pretty, the ambiance casting the same spell on the audience that Elio is under that summer.
The third act really knocks it out of the park. Stuhlbarg’s much-lauded monologue is full of powerful, poetic lines that have been reverberating around my head since I saw the film. The very last scene is emotionally overwhelming yet so simple it is almost unbearable Guadagnino lets the camera rest for a while, and draws out a single shot, and the audience is prompted to reflect on the breath-taking story they have just been told. Sounds of a crackling fire segue into Sufjan Stevens’s otherworldly “Visions of Gideon,” the scene is gorgeous.
Call Me by Your Name is a pure joy, a sumptuous sensory experience, a celebration of music, nature, art and love, and very likely the best film of 2017.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics