With Call Me By Your Name, one can herald the arrival of a spiritual successor to Luchino Visconti, the master of romantic Italian cinema: director Luca Guadagnino. And with this film, Guadagnino has directed his Death in Venice, a sweeping gay romance, set amidst the luscious landscapes of the Italian countryside. Except, unlike Visconti’s film, Call Me By Your Name is less about the dangers of desire than it is about the intoxicating splendour of spontaneous love, absent of the boundaries of societal concern for sexuality and gender.
Who does this impulsive love bring together? Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer). The cause for their coming together? Oliver is a student of Elio’s father, Lyle (Michael Stuhlbarg) and, whilst staying with Lyle and his wife Annella (Amira Casar), he develops a friendship with Elio that quickly blossoms into a love affair, both physically and intellectually.
The minimalism of this narrative summary is no negative on the part of the film’s overall effect. In fact, it constitutes an immense positive in relation to its depiction of Elio and Oliver’s relationship. There’s no forced moment of conflict; no kangaroo court or band of pitchfork bearers coming to split the two lovers apart. Similarly, there’s no clichéd melodrama or manipulative filmmaking on show. Guadagnino and his writer – one half of the acclaimed Merchant Ivory duo, James Ivory – simply allow the story of Elio and Oliver’s affair to flourish, rising from their agnostic introduction to their first sexual encounter.
And what a beautiful tale it is, wrought with teenage angst, raw passion and meaningful reflections on the complexities of sexuality. Ivory’s script is subtle, playful and faithful to its audience: it never betrays our immersion, evolving the relationship in a naturally prolonged manner and always staying true to its characters’ intentions.
It’s helped considerably by some wonderful acting, as Hammer and Chalamet excel with the words they are provided. There’s no false note to either of their performances, no moment where I doubted the affection between Elio and Oliver. Hammer and Chalamet cross the entire spectrum of human emotions and do so in such an expressive and authentic way: one scene in particular, involving an apricot and the film’s two leads, proves this point entirely, converting what could have been an awkwardly inexplicable turn-of-events into a further evocation of the intricacies of intimacy.
One must also mention Michael Stuhlbarg as well. What could have played out as the hackneyed ‘repressive father’ role as seen in films such as Dead Poets Society, ends up resembling a more optimistic approach to the parental struggle of dealing with a child’s budding sexuality. Stuhlbarg delivers a monologue towards the latter half of the film on this very subject, and it is delivered with such nuance and instilled sentiment that one could easily find themselves brought to tears.
Yet even the performances are brought further to life, by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s voluptuous cinematography. While his panoramic shots of rural Italy do inspire esteem, it’s his use of close-ups, particularly within moments of contact between Elio and Oliver, that Mukdeeprom arouses feelings of ardour, eroticism and admiration for the body, with all of its perfections and defects. While much of the early physical interaction between Elio and Oliver is sociable, Mukdeeprom’s tight photography graces these scenes with an underlining sensuality that immediately instigates a personal connection to their inevitable affair. It’s affective work and adds another layer to Guadagnino’s attractively idyllic film.
In spite of its singularity, there is always the possibility of comparison to Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece Moonlight, a similar coming-of-age tale around the sexual growth of a young man. But while Moonlight is certainly the more grounded and perhaps more relatable film with regards to the communal complications that arise from one’s race, gender and sexuality, Call Me By Your Name instead focuses purely, and intensely, on the nature of relationships and their consequences. It downplays any political stance in the narrative: this is not a film that seeks to make any bold claims about the status of minorities. Instead, it performs the minor miracle of avoiding any presumptuous claims about what it is to be gay, alternatively aiming to increase awareness of and build alignment with a sexual relation that is other to the heterosexual monogamy that remains dominant within our society. One should congratulate Guadagnino in this regard. Rather than force subtext into his film, he opts instead to recreate a sumptuous, provocative and challenging remodelling of Shakespeare’s classic romance Romeo & Juliet. And you’ll be completely swept along by it, from beginning to end.