Call Me by Your Name is a tender and warm coming of age story that beautifully captures that peculiar mixture of melancholy and exhilaration that so often accompanies a first love. Set in Italy in the 1980s, it is a subtle, sensuous, and gorgeous film. The pacing is pastoral and languid, lending the characters a lived-in and complex feel as they explore their surroundings. It sports a timeless plot about self-discovery and sexual exploration, with impeccable performances. Director Luca Guadagnino has perfectly executed one of the most heartbreaking and satisfying films of recent memory.
The screenplay was written by James Ivory, based off of the novel of the same name by André Aciman. The story involves a grad student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) spending the summer in Italy with Dr. Perlman, an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Perlman’s son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a bit of a reserved bookworm who spends his summers swimming, transcribing music, and generally lazing around. He spends some time chasing girls, but has a growing affection for Oliver.
Like the best coming-of-age stories, the plot mostly exists for the characters to feel each other out and grow to know each other. Over the course of the summer, Elio grows closer to Oliver and a relationship blossoms between the two, though it is fraught with misunderstandings, awkwardness, and unforeseen complexities.
Elio is an accomplished pianist with a passion for composition and classical music. He can be a bit of a show off, especially when he is trying to impress Oliver. But, while he appreciates that he has some skill with music and a burgeoning intellect, he is also painfully aware that he knows nothing about love, relationships, and sex. He’s frustrated that growing up is taking so long, and quite self-conscious about his lack of experience.
By contrast, Oliver feels flush with confidence from the get-go, at least from Elio’s perspective. Oliver sleeps off his jetlag more like a member of the family than a brand-new lodger, and gains Elio’s confidence in the process. Soon thereafter, he corrects the professor on some linguistic minutia involving the word “apricot”, impressing everyone. Though he relies on Elio to show him around town, he’s quick to make friends and find his own hangout spots. One night, when Elio is out with some friends, he spies Oliver dancing with a gorgeous woman in the crowd, completely carefree. Oliver seems perfect – young, confident, zestful.
As the relationship between Elio and Oliver grows more familiar, there’s plenty of room for innuendo and misunderstandings. Sometimes, it seems like they are developing a rapport, and other times it feels more like they’re at odds with each other. Eventually, Elio takes a leap of faith and reveals his feelings, but it is incredibly subtle and under-stated, much like the rest of the film.
While the two men explore their new relationship, the audience is treated to some fantastic cinematography. The light is soft and warm, the camera patient and content to simply capture the beauty of the Italian countryside and let the performances simply exist in this beautiful surrounding. It works incredibly well, lending the entire film a pastoral and relaxed feel.
Call Me by Your Name is a film about first loves, about the contradiction of burning bright with passion while simultaneously feeling plagued with uncertainty and fear. In addition, this love story has the added element of a young boy discovering his sexuality and growing into his own. The film is wonderfully executed, and manages to navigate the story towards a climax that will leave your heart positively swollen with a bittersweet tenderness. Two scenes stand out: a confessional from Elio’s father that confirms that he was aware of the relationship with Oliver, and a holiday phone call from Oliver at the very end of the film.
The performances in these scenes (and many others) are superb. The actors have a naturalness to them, a genuine kinship. It is clear that a lot of work went into drawing these performances out of the actors. There were extensive rehearsals between performers, and a lot of hang out time to build camaraderie. It pays huge dividends up on the screen, producing one of the most touching and realistic views of a burgeoning relationship in recent memory.
Call Me by Your Name is simply an exemplary film. The performances are splendid and touching, the story timeless and perfectly executed, and the shots feel like slipping into a warm bath. Even the music, some of which was written specifically for the film, is wonderful. There aren’t enough superlatives for Call Me by Your Name, and it is the kind of film that will stay with you long after your first experience with it.