Luca Guadagnino’s new film is a painfully real and wonderfully heartfelt queer bildungsroman, bittersweet and beautiful. Call Me by Your Name tells the story of a seminal summer for 17 year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet); it is 1983 and he is spending the hottest months of the year in northern Italy with his parents, as he always has. The arrival of a transfer student at his father’s invitation brings an element of familiar curiosity, but swiftly thrusts Elio into the unknown.
Armie Hammer’s Oliver is gorgeous and confident, louche and laid-back, and Elio overcomes his scepticism to idolise the American. Their flirtatious circling of each other provides the film’s central drive, and carries it towards its numbing conclusion, but the strength of Call Me by Your Name is in its universal attention. It encompasses with unerring accuracy the endless summer days of youth, the search for identity of a student, the struggles of family relationships, and more. We see the terrified angst of a teenage boy in Elio, yet through his sometime girlfriend and sexual partner in exploration, Marzia (Esther Garrel), we also observe an almost improbably well-realised female perspective.
Marzia is a minor character, but one whose every movement and line delivery contributes to her sense of character, and she embodies a trick that Guadagnino somehow pulls off with almost every player in his story. By way of example, Elio’s mother and father each have their intricacies, betrayed in their physicality and their speech, in glances to and away from each other. Michael Stuhlbarg, so impressive for the Coens in A Simple Man, is a paternal figure of depth and pathos, delivering doses of sympathy and realism but also, most importantly, passion for his work and life which become significant in retrospect. Amira Casar hints at the struggle of a mother who occasionally feels separate from her husband and son alike. The strength of performance throughout the supporting cast is superlative, in short.
Yet the core drama does belong to Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, and they each perform exquisitely. Young Elio is precocious and shy alike, talented in the extreme yet self-loathing in typical and understandable style. Oliver is cocksure and brash, yet vulnerable and solitudinous in subtle ways. Their relationship fascinates and befuddles the viewer just as it does them both, and delights in equal measure.
In visual terms Call Me by Your Name‘s use of motif and and imagery is a towering element of its success, one which haunts and lingers long after the credits scroll. From character’s appetites to their spoken mannerisms, through linguistic interchange and translation to their costumes and very bodies, the film charts so much change, alongside elements of profound stasis, as to almost suffocate the viewer in its vivid tapestry. It is a true pleasure to sink into this Lombardian world – ancient Italian hill towns as new generations will never be able to experience them; deserted country roads begging to be cycled down; clear rivers too crystalline to be believed. The sense of nostalgia is forceful, yet is entwined in the characters’ search for change; we luxuriate in the baking heat with them, feel time drip by, grow impatient as they do, before longing for more another summer; we dream of being able to join them.
This is a film of immense heart, and incredible understanding. Its depth continually astonishes and impresses, leaving it as greater than the sum of its parts, despite those components’ stunning quality.