I recently watched Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” and was struck by its uncanny resemblance to life during the coronavirus pandemic. It is unhurried, isolated, and seemingly suspended in time.
The film’s protagonist, Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), is a 17-year-old bored, angsty Italian-American who is spending the summer of 1983 with his parents in a sleepy town in Northern Italy. The two hour and twelve-minute production explores Elio’s ephemeral yet romantically formative relationship with Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old graduate student assistant to Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeology professor. Although initially at odds with one another, Elio and Oliver eventually realize their mutual attraction during their leery-turned-congenial friendship. Their journey from indifference to infatuation is taken at a leisurely pace and an emphasis is placed on the curious dance that they find themselves partners in. For the better part of the film, they are locked in a perpetual state of flirtation, irritation, and one question racks both of their minds: is he gay? Finally, after a lengthy buildup, the pair begins a summer-long fling characterized by midnight trysts and a foreboding feeling.
Guadagnino’s interpretation of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel distinguishes itself by transcending genre. A subtle transformation turns a lighthearted summer romance into a melancholic coming of age drama, and the result does not disappoint. The film is unquestionably one of the best of 2017.
At the opening, the audience is immediately captivated by the lavish setting in Lombardy’s pastoral outskirts. Viewers cannot help but wish they were quarantined at the Perlman’s palatial villa.
Elio and his parents saunter through summer with a carefree attitude. Aside from Mr. Perlman’s archeological research, the family focuses on simple pleasures, serenading house guests with classical music by night, and lounging about their sumptuous abode by day.
The summer tale is tranquilly paced and an abundance of time is given to the characters and their development as they spend it reading, swimming, and biking bucolic trails. The relaxed clip is a welcome respite from the usual, palpable haste in many new films that allows for jam-packed plots despite ever-increasing running times. “Call Me by Your Name” instead mirrors the newfound leisurely, if not humdrum, lifestyle of the quarantined viewer.
The lack of urgency and beautiful yet inactive backdrop (with almost eerily empty streets) places a magnifying glass over the main characters and their relationship with each other. Chalamet’s Elio is precocious, impudent, and apathetic towards Oliver at the outset. He appears to be preoccupied with writing and reading classical music and indifferently rendezvousing with a local French girl. In actuality, he is doing his best to play it cool and get a better read on Oliver.
Any irritation with Elio’s blase attitude is overshadowed by Oliver’s overall arrogance and loutishness in the early scenes. Upon his arrival to the Perlmans’, he sleeps through dinner, and gratuitously schools the professor on his etymology. The director seems to poke fun at Oliver’s overt American-ness, but as the film progresses, he reveals himself to be an openhearted, charming companion to Elio.
While their summer of love is pleasant and captivating, it serves as a cautionary tale for those who endeavor into mismatched relationships; in this case, the imbalance being age and experience. Towards the end of the film, Elio looks on as Oliver dances in the street with a woman and is visibly sickened as he realizes their time together is ending and that their separation will affect him considerably more than Oliver.
The script is characterized by awkwardly terse conversations between Elio and Oliver. For a pair of intellectuals, they undoubtedly struggle to express their emotions, and at times seem to be on altogether different wavelengths. This type of exchange is to be expected in the beginning when their friendship is replete with sexual tension, but the inexpressive dialogue lingers throughout the film. At one point, Elio angrily jots down his feelings on a notepad. He writes, “I was too harsh. I thought he didn’t like me.” This serves as an unnecessary plot device, and a simple use of body language could have made this crutch avoidable. In fact, it is the pair’s physical chemistry — the pushing, posturing, gallivanting, and of course, the intimacy — that serves as their main mode of communication and makes up for the film’s ofttimes hollow dialogue.
In the penultimate scene, the succinct script neatly gives way to a heartfelt soliloquy from Elio’s father where he comforts his grieving son over Oliver’s departure and urges him not to snuff out his feelings. Stuhlbarg’s emotional monologue ties the film together, and puts the romantic relationship into perspective for Elio and the audience. Mr. Perlman does not make assumptions, nor judge, but instead delicately imparts his own wisdom. “You had a beautiful friendship,” he tells Elio. “Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you.” He goes on:
“In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it. And if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out. Don’t be brutal with it. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster, that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything ― what a waste!”
Through his deft framing and sober reflection, Mr. Perlman’s speech serves as the emotional crescendo that the audience had long-awaited. His paternal reassurance, an improbable luxury for many in the LGBTQ community in the 1980s, mutes the sting of Elio’s grief, but it still can’t quite shake the melancholic feeling of lost love.
The final sequence, taking place months later in the dead of winter, depicts Elio learning that Oliver is engaged to a woman. Upon hearing the news, he hunches down in front of the crackling fireplace and begins to weep. Much like the quarantined viewer, Elio now embarks upon a new season of reflection and solitude.