gave the film four stars; it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Golden Globe. Then arrived 2016’s A Bigger Splash, a lush, year-end-list-topping remake of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969) that instantly legitimized the hype buzzing about his name as something that would endure.
And now here’s Call Me By Your Name, a tender tale of first love that concludes Guadagnino’s unofficial "Desire trilogy." Like the director’s previous two films, it is a masterpiece. It is also one of the best movies of the year.
Guadagnino’s transformation from promising artiste with myriad false starts to his name to prolific celebrity director is not so much sudden as it was inevitable. Movies as mellifluous, evocative, and intimate as Guadagnino’s are an anomaly and are therefore easy to embrace once they come around. In the tradition of Pedro Almodóvar, once you’ve seen one of the director’s films, you’re hooked. So stylistically opulent, emotionally immediate, and, not to mention, direct, Guadagnino’s features make for exciting contrasts to the understatement-obsessed arthouse and the impersonal, accessibility-preferring mainstream.
Call Me By Your Name is his most personal film, partly because of the fact that the storyline acts as his first that isn’t obviously informed by grandiose cinematic antecedents (from I Am Love’s reimagining of George Cukor’s flossy women’s pictures of the 1930s and ‘40s to A Bigger Splash’s jazzing up of the erotic thriller formula of the early ‘90s), partly because his deciding to helm the film in the first place had much to do with his own romantic experiences as a gay man.
It is his finest work so far, impeccably linking his habitual visual flamboyance to a clear-eyed, very visceral story. Set in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983, it is about the unexpected romance between the precocious 17-year-old Elio and the classically handsome 24-year-old Oliver (Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer). Elio is the trilingual, piano-prodigy son of an archeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who plans to spend his vacation reading, swimming, and romancing; Oliver’s a towering, charming grad student staying at family's vacation home in the name of something of a hands-on archeological internship experience.
Neither Elio nor Oliver expects the relationship that eventually blossoms between them, in part to their putative heterosexuality and in part to their both initially pursuing other summertime flings. (Elio with the lovely, Esther Garrel-portrayed Marzia, Oliver with a wild-haired local girl.) But little gestures here and there are interlined with an easily discernible sexual tension. One-on-one trips to the grocery store, for instance, feel an awful lot like nervous first dates in which no one’s willing to admit their romantic feelings. Conversations are accidentally flirtatious games of one-upmanship. Physical hints – from Oliver’s playfully massaging a “tight” Elio during an afternoon volleyball game to the latter’s childishly punching Oliver’s beefy arms on occasion to a post-lunch foot massage – express that maybe romance is preferable to friendship if the other’s willing.
The affair’s slow to start. Early on, the two participate in an anxious make-out session alongside a river in the countryside, only to distance themselves from one another in pursuit of their other romantic and intellectual interests. But then caution’s thrown to the wind sometime around the end of the summer, with unrealized lust traded for a real kind of love. This, of course, can only lead to momentous heartbreak, especially on the part of Elio, who’s never lived through this intense of a relationship before.
In watching Call Me By Your Name was I reminded of the ninth track on Melodrama, Lorde’s sophomore album that was released to much acclaim earlier this year. On the song “Supercut,” the singer-songwriter relives the memories of a past relationship; the previously felt good times with her former lover play like a greatest-hits compilation in her head. Though much hurt was experienced toward the end of this romance, she can’t help but be consumed by this clip show of rose-colored remembrances, feelings of yearning.
As Call Me By Your Name unspools, we’re increasingly able to envision the supercut that will someday play in the minds of these characters, particularly Elio. From the start, we know this romance will not last, whether it’s because of age difference, physical distance, an eventual leaning more toward the opposite end of bisexuality, or the knowledge that a gay romance circa 1983 is a tricky ordeal. But that doesn't stop these young men from completely, if recklessly, devoting themselves to one another.
So like Elio and Oliver, we treasure every moment they spend together. And screenwriter James Ivory, 86 at the time of adaptation (the movie's based upon the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman), brilliantly captures the weight of this fleeting relationship. There’s always an unmistakable understanding that this pair is both getting enough and not enough time together. Fortunately, we can rewatch the film and relive the story, hoping the details might change as if all were an elastic, easily manipulated dream. But for Elio and Oliver, everything must be savored, and such can be felt in their contemplative, but precisely melancholy, characterizations.
In their respective embodiments of these characters, Chalamet and Hammer are magnificent. Chalamet, gifted with the performative introspection of River Phoenix or a young Leonardo DiCaprio, is poised for a future of long-lasting marquee headlining. Though his wiry frame ages him down, he carries the emotional clarity of a seasoned actor famous for his uncommon sensitivity, his eyes dreamy and emerald and capable of convincing us that he’s lost in a complex thought the moment he backs out of a conversation.
The closing shot, which rawly rests on his somber face in extreme close-up, is especially eerie. I couldn’t help but think of the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), which was a quiet, minutes-long montage of vacant city streets that nihilistically suggested that all that we witnessed in the movie didn’t matter because, er, nothing matters. Our friendships, our romances, our memories, are microscopic and trivial in the grand scheme of things. Call Me By Your Name’s decision to use Chalamet’s torn-up face as a summarization of the agonies presented in the film, then, is an interesting contrast: It decides that one young man’s heartbreak is important and perhaps universal, and that sort of bittersweet optimism is curiously moving.
Hammer, who’s for so long tried to establish himself as a leading man that he even became the picked-apart subject of a recent long-form analysis by the cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen, finally gives a performance that proves his being more than a pretty face with just passable acting chops. Saddled with the same almost otherworldly good looks of leading men of the yesteryear like Gregory Peck or Paul Newman, he at first stumbles into Call Me By Your Name believable only as a fantasy character, an unattainable vision who might as well be made of marble.
When it’s made clear that he’s just as interested in the central affair as the skinny young thing opposite him, we suddenly see a new dimension. For so long has it likely been immediately decided who this man should be: an aloof beaut who goes about his life with apparent ease. So when we find that so much of what we might have initially believed about Oliver isn’t exactly true, we’re as aghast as Elio. Hammer persuasively radiates a certain kind of broad-shouldered mystery, confidently carrying himself in public. When opposite Chalamet, we suddenly see susceptibility, suspecting that his living a life not completely informed by the truth is subtly breaking him.
Because the setting’s so ravishing and sensorially tangible – the sun-soaked, sensuousness of Italy is ogled by the cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera – the existence of an ephemeral affair is but a supplement to the almost fantastically beautiful scenery.
The music certainly helps, too: The Psychedelic Furs’ New Wave classic “Love My Way” is memorably used in a scene meant to convey uninhibitedness; Sufjan Stevens, who contributes three songs to the film’s soundtrack, is integral, especially to the film’s closing shot; rumblings of classical music – all harboring the same energy of Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit suite (1908) – aurally capture locked-up sexual coveting waiting to be unleashed.
Guadagnino wants us to luxuriate in the symphony of the senses that Call Me By Your Name is, and so it isn’t a surprise that he additionally subverts the long-ingrained expectation that a gay-themed romantic film must also take detours into various kinds of tragedies and hardships. Here, there are no exclamations of shame, interruptions courtesy of the police or a homophobic public, crises of AIDS, suicides. There's an invigorating sense of acceptance, epitomized by Michael Stuhlbarg’s tear-jerking monologue toward the film’s end. The only villain here is time. Guadagnino celebrates this romance as something as glorious as any.
One’s inclined to wonder if the director will ever again make a movie so spotless. His next project, a remake of Dario Argento’s blood-spattered horror opus Suspiria (1977), will purportedly be released within the next few months. Given his declaration that his take will be stylistically unlike the movie on which it’s based (interesting, considering how style is essentially everything in Suspiria), it’s clear that its existence is something of a wild card. But if Guadagnino never again directs a movie as perfect as Call Me By Your Name, so be it; a filmmaker achieving this sort of excellence even once in their career is a rarity. I can’t wait to watch it again. A
Victoire Du Bois
2 Hrs., 12 Mins.
Call Me By Your Name December 25, 2017
hough he’s been making feature films for nearly two decades, the director Luca Guadagnino’s being recognized as one of cinema’s top filmmakers has come fairly recently. While he’d made two movies before it – the ignored The Protagonists (1999) and the little-seen Melissa P. (2005) – it was not until the 2009 release of his symphonic modern melodrama I Am Love that he would garner both international critical acclaim and commercial success. Roger Ebert