January 15, 2018
I hesitate to call this a review. If it were a review, I’d tell you to turn away from it now and don’t come back until you’ve watched the film you came here to read about.
I could– and will– tell you about the lush beauty of the scenery in Call Me By Your Name. And about the music, which bounces from classic to modern and back again, yet always feels appropriate for the moment. And how the performances are so raw, you’ll feel like an intruder watching them. The craftsmanship on display is certainly worth devoting a few hundred words to, but if you want to experience the story, don’t read another word. Go to the theater, go in as blindly as you can, and then let this beautiful film wash over you and carry you back out into the world on a wave of discovery.
Call Me By Your Name (CMBYN) is a coming-of-age story set in 1983 about Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old American living in Italy for the summer with his parents. Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old doctoral candidate from the States arrives for a prolonged visit, hoping Elio’s scholar father can help him finish his dissertation. A quiet tension builds between Elio and Oliver, made more tense by the fact that Elio’s developing sexuality is still a mystery, even to himself. Over the course of the summer, Elio and Oliver explore the Italian countryside, have long conversations that range from philosophy to pop culture, and fall into a heady affair neither was prepared for.
CMBYN was shot on location in northern Italy; and the cobblestone streets, worn bike paths, and fountains in the square practically scream romance, even when Elio and Oliver don’t. The villa where Elio’s family lives is full of books and classical music and scholarly discussion. The beautiful old house and the rambling ease with which it is inhabited speaks to a certain comfort its occupants have with wealth and leisure.
Elio is a pianist who is both driven to respect the classics and inject his own personal style into them. A character trait that makes him curious but wary about his feelings for Oliver. Making out with a girl from the village is an expected rite of passage; doing the same with Oliver, who is older, yes, but mostly so very male, is taboo. Elio’s decision, his compunction, to be with Oliver comes at the risk of knowing it’s not something he could ever put on display. It is the 1980s, after all, and homophobia is alive and well. Even in Europe.
Armie Hammer has spoken extensively about his experience making this movie, and how much he had to trust the director to take him some place he’d never been. Hammer turns in a fine performance as Oliver, perhaps a career-shifting performance even, but it’s Timothée Chalamet as Elio who will break your heart. Chalamet, a relative newcomer who wound up in two of this year’s most discussed films (Lady Bird being the other), captures the essence of what being a teenager really is for so many people. The constant learning and unlearning of yourself, the seemingly endless search for a sense of home in your own body and the world around you. Teenagers are often characterized as angsty, and the contortions Elio puts himself through to accept himself as he is certainly places him in that category. Chalamet’s bouncy, often playful performance, however, keeps Elio from drifting into darkness or, worse, annoyance.
Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) has crafted an incredibly nuanced film. The relationship between Elio and Oliver is pieced together with carefully selected moments, conversations that start and stop abruptly, random moments that linger, and tender ones that end too soon. There’s a sense that the viewer is getting the highlight reel. That for every moment we do see, there are a hundred others we don’t. It’s a bold decision that in the hands of a less capable director could have made the film choppy and unwelcoming to the viewer. Here it makes these characters and their world feel full to the brim, as if there’s no way they could tell you everything in 132 minutes.
I walked into CMBYN expecting to watch a romance unfold between two people, and that story is there, and it is beautiful. But what Guadagnino ultimately delivers is a story about loving yourself and having the freedom and safe space for self-exploration and expression. The luxury of spending months on holiday in a lush European setting speaks to the privilege of these characters to engage in those activities– who has time to “find their self” when they’re working three jobs?– but the heart of Elio’s story is the desperate desire each person has inside them to know themselves and then share that in a judgment-free zone.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve either seen the movie and had your own reaction to it, or you decided to completely disregard my instructions in the first few paragraphs. Either way, I won’t be ruining anything to say that the final moments of the film are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Elio’s journey through this story culminates in a perfect marriage of performance, cinematography, and sorrowful song by the incomparable Sufjan Stevens.
Coming off a moving conversation with his father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who could not have been more perfectly cast), Elio must accept that his relationship with Oliver has ended. That it was always going to. That perhaps there is as much to learn from heartbreak as romance. That the process is unceasing. And that the most important relationship he will ever have is the one he must cultivate with himself. In short, it is a snapshot of the singular moment when a boy becomes a man, a moment somehow made universal in its specificity.
Whether you walk away from Call Me By Your Name grateful for the safe spaces in your own journey or mournful over the lack of them, you will not walk away unaffected.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5