Is there anything better than being in love when you’re seventeen? Is there anything worse than being in love when you’re seventeen? The dizzying emotional highs and lows entwined with the answers to those questions are only part of the boundless beauty contained in Call Me by Your Name. As it unspooled before me, one word in particular kept returning to me again and again. I only want to share the word with you if I can first strip out any negative connotation it has. Everything about Call Me by Your Name – its lush cinematography, its meticulous pacing, its devastating performances – is languid. Not in the sense that it’s weak or frail or feeble, which are the negative synonyms associated with the word. No, this film is relaxed, unhurried, and leisurely in building the love story that by the end is emotionally pulverizing. But this isn’t just a love story. It’s also a coming-of-age story as well as a sexual awaking story.
Set in 1983, Call Me by Your Name chronicles the love affair between 17-year-old Elio Perlman and Oliver, a 24-year-old doctoral candidate who is spending six weeks as an assistant to Elio’s father, an art history and archeology professor. Every summer, Elio’s family relocates to a small town in the Italian countryside so Professor Perlman can continue his academic research. He invites a new student every year to aide him, and this year, it’s Oliver. At first, the new houseguest only irritates Elio. He thinks Oliver is arrogant, and is comically annoyed by Oliver’s habit of ending conversations by saying, “Later.” As the summer stretches on, Elio finds himself becoming attracted to Oliver, and Oliver responds in kind.
It’s a lamentable fact that even today in certain parts of society, being gay is seen as immoral or shameful. As ridiculous as that view is in 2018, it was even more prevalent in 1983, so Elio and Oliver feel they must be secretive about their blossoming romance.
The movie, which is based on a 2007 novel of the same name, complicates things even more by making Elio a minor. This is a tricky subject to address, especially in the wake of several overlapping movements against sexual harassers and predators. There are the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, as well as the numerous women who alleged that recent Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore sexually assaulted them when they were in their teens and he was in his thirties. In fact, as I’m writing this, actress Eliza Dushku has just in the last 24 hours come forward with her story, alleging that when she was 12 years old and working on the movie True Lies, the stunt coordinator on the film, Joel Kramer, molested her.
The proper response here is one that allows for the most nuance. If possible, absolutes should be avoided, and we should realize every situation is different. As that relates to the relationship in Call Me by Your Name, 17 is not 12, and Oliver does not hold a place of power or authority over Elio. On a personal note, I have direct experience with this particular situation. The first time I fell in love, I was 17 and she was 28. She was a teacher, so she did hold a position of authority over me, but I never felt abused or assaulted. That’s just one in the myriad circumstances that should be considered when discussing this fraught topic.
If we asked Elio – an intelligent, emotionally sensitive young man – if he felt Oliver had abused him, I doubt he would respond in the affirmative. At the same time, I wonder if the rapturous critical reaction to Call Me by Your Name would have been the same if it had revolved around a 17-year-old girl, instead of a 17-year-old boy, having multiple sexual encounters with a 24-year-old man.
But I’ve spent enough time on the moral quandaries that this picture elicits. If we accept that Elio is mature enough to handle his affair with Oliver, Call Me by Your Name is a beautiful, transformative piece of cinema about the power of love, and the irresistible sexual awakening that each of us experiences only once.
Director Luca Guadagnino sets that awakening against a sensually lush Italian backdrop. His cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, makes us feel the heat of the summer with his warm color palette. A scene early in the movie, when Oliver has just arrived at the Perlman residence, is breathtaking. Oliver is exhausted from the flight, and fighting jet lag, so he goes straight to sleep. Elio tries to wake him for dinner, but Oliver turns him down. The purple of the waning daylight that permeates each frame is hypnotic.
The next morning, when Oliver is refreshed, he joins the family for breakfast. They are having soft-boiled eggs, and Oliver hungrily gobbles his. Elio’s mother, Annella, urges him to have another. He declines. If he has a second, that will lead to a third, which will lead to a fourth. It’s a sly hint that Oliver has an insatiable appetite, one that might not be restricted to just food. Much later in the film, Elio’s own voracious sexual appetite actually does involve food. That scene, involving a peach, is handled with great care by Guadagnino so as not to become laughable or disgusting. It’s a delicate reminder of that time just before full adulthood when sex is an all-consuming obsession.
The performances in Call Me by Your Name are also delicate and lovingly crafted. The best among them is Timothée Chalamet as Elio. This is a break-out performance for an actor who is mature beyond his years. Chalamet is 22, playing 17, but with his slight, wiry frame and boyish looks, he could easily pull off 14 or 15. There is a subtlety to Chalamet’s facial expressions with which actors twice his age and experience might struggle. In one scene, involving Elio crying inconsolably, Chalamet puts a hint of a smile on his face. It’s as if through the tears he’s simultaneously remembering happier times.
Armie Hammer is dashing and cocksure as Oliver. There’s nuance to his performance, too. One line he delivers in voice-over as part of a phone conversation left me with a lump in my throat a half-hour after the movie had ended. The great character-actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Elio’s pretentious professor father. Mr. Perlman is a loving dad, trying to pass on his intellectual curiosity to his son. Stuhlbarg delivers a soliloquy to Chalamet late in the film about love that is beyond touching. He is an actor who can patiently reside at the periphery of a movie until the appointed time, then deliver a devastating speech that wrecks you.
In addition to the source material, that speech was supplied by 89-year-old filmmaker James Ivory, who wrote the screenplay. Ivory was half of the romantic and professional partnership of Merchant Ivory, with Ismail Merchant. That partnership, which led to six Academy Awards, ended with Merchant’s death in 2005. Ivory, who also produced this film, wrote a beautiful screenplay.
Adding to that beauty is Sufjan Stevens’ original songs for the movie. They wash over the images at precise moments, adding a mournful quality to what’s happening on screen. Every element of Call Me by Your Name works together to create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a timeless tale of love and loss filtered through a unique perspective and original talent that makes it feel fresh and new.
Why it got 5 stars:
- My emotional response is responsible for much of this rating. Call My by Your Name moved me in a profound way. It's also beautiful to look at, and the performances are first rate.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I wrote about nuance in the main review. A great strength of this movie is that it deals in nuance when it comes to sexual identity, too. Before he starts his relationship with Oliver, Elio has an intense physical relationship with a local girl. It's a great reminder that sexual orientation can be fluid, and it's not a binary "either-or" proposition.
- I gave a tiny bit of attention to Sufjan Stevens' songs for the movie, compared to their impact. His songs are amazing, and I can't recommend seeking them out enough.
- While we're on the topic of music, there are several moments when the soundtrack jarringly cuts off, and that's usually accompanied by equally jarring edits in the film. I'm sure Guadagnino and his editor, Walter Fasano, had very specific reasons for these choices, but I have no idea what they could be.
- Call Me by Your Name is exhibit A in why releasing my top 10 of the year when I do is often a painful experience later. Had I seen this movie before I finalized my list, it probably would have been number one. But, if I waited until I see everything that might be in contention for a best of list, I probably wouldn't put one out until February, and that doesn't feel right either.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Director Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA to all the cool kids) made one of (if not the) best films of the aughts with There Will Be Blood. He followed that up with another masterpiece in 2012's The Master. After that, he made Inherent Vice, a film I was not in love with, although I may need to give it a second chance. Now comes Phantom Thread, his new film, in which he teams up with his collaborator on There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis, in what the actor says will be his last film.