Living in the Italian countryside, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends his time reading books, transcribing music, and lounging by the pool. When the warm summer days are long, there is little else to do. His summer is upended by the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who assists Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor.
There is some tension between Elio and Oliver, as is expected with the arrival of a new person in the house, once Elio realizes that Oliver is very much a different person than him. While Elio possesses a lack of self-confidence, Oliver is self-assured by contrast, a quality that comes only with age. Oliver is instantly liked by Elio’s family and admired by the ladies. Elio spends time with his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) and is jealous of the attention that Oliver receives.
Elio comes to admire Oliver and his feelings of admiration turn into love. Elio is anxious about professing his love to Oliver but gains confidence after being read a classic romance story about a knight who yearns for a princess and wonders whether it is better to profess his love, to speak, or to die without experiencing what could have been. We see anxiousness, fear, and youthfulness in Chalamet’s face in equal measure while finding strength, but also sensitivity, in Hammer’s. The two are equally compelling in Call Me By Your Name as they make clear the mark that their characters have on each other’s lives. Elio’s decision to profess his love becomes a formative moment in his life and a clear step away from adolescence and into adulthood.
The story of the knight is but one of many references to culture within Call Me By Your Name. As Elio’s father is an archaeology professor, ancient statues are seen both in projector slides (the film takes place in 1983) and in an excavation. Oliver impresses both Elio and his father as he engages in conversation with Elio’s father about the etymology of a word, ultimately disagreeing with Elio’s father and providing compelling justification in his thoughts. Elio also exhibits a knowledge of the great composers.
Within the film, a lush piano score featuring original pieces from Sufjan Stevens plays at key moments, not unlike Spike Jonze enlisting the help of Arcade Fire for the soundtrack of Her. The miracle of the score within Call Me By Your Name is that it is both diagetic and non-diagetic: Elio himself plays the piano for Oliver and his family on a number of occasions. Within Elio’s house sound travels freely, enabling piano playing to feel natural- someone could be conceivably playing the piano at any moment- but at the same time creating tension. Will the two be caught in their romance? What would be the consequences?
Shot on location in Crema, Italy with a single 35mm lens, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (known for his work in arthouse favorite Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) captures the beauty and warmth of the region with a visual palette inspired by the films of the French New Wave. He does this miraculously while Crema experienced a historic amount of rain during the filming of the movie. Unlike many romance films, Mukdeeprom does not film close-up after close-up within Call Me By Your Name. There are close-ups- one being on Oliver’s Star of David necklace- but each holds a purpose, this example for instance unifying Elio and Oliver in their shared Jewish heritage.
What is done best within director Luca Guadagnino’s films is their writing, Call Me By Your Name’s screenplay duties shared between Guadagnino and James Ivory. A deception is created in that it seems that his characters actually have lives to live and aren’t just cycling through a pre-ordained series of activities created by a writer. Guadagnino doesn’t hesitate from filming scenes, such as a scene involving characters playing volleyball, that aren’t strictly required in order to tell a story. These scenes craft nuance into the film with their realism and oftentimes secondary meaning and purpose.
In the volleyball scene for instance, tension is evident as girls fawn watching Oliver play volleyball, creating jealousy felt by Elio. When Oliver takes a break from playing, he notices that Elio is tense and starts massaging his back, a means to initiate touching between the characters and also to signify the discomfort that Elio feels around Oliver. The touch indicates a contrast between the two characters, Elio as stiff while Oliver is relaxed and confident. When Elio resists the massage, Oliver has Marzia continue the massage, guiding Marzia to touch her boyfriend. He shakes her off hesitantly. Character development within this scene early on in the film, as in others, helps Guadagnino capture all the uncertainty and confusion that comes with falling in love, and perhaps even more so in being human. His willingness to portray even the minor facets of the human condition enables standout moments from actors such as Michael Stuhlbarg and gives you chills with how realistic the drama within his films are.
I don’t believe that Guadagnino was concerned with creating a single intended effect on the viewer when filming Call Me By Your Name. The film itself is an adaption of a novel of the same name, lifting directly from the novel its idiosyncratic characters and their friendship. The age difference between Elio and Oliver, homosexuality, infidelity, and their experience of summer love is matter-of-fact in presentation. Guadagnino does not attempt to moralize or justify his characters’ experiences and any one response to his film is dependent on viewers’ perspective and background with these topics.
For a film that seems to speak so sincerely about love, it is noteworthy that the film is the concluding entry in Guadagnino’s Desire trilogy. The trilogy is not one of love. We aren’t given how Elio and Oliver would interact outside of the idyllic Crema and it’s impossible to know whether their relationship could flourish if formed apart from the region or summertime. Sofia Coppola captures a similar relationship in her own Lost in Translation, the film featuring an unlikely romance between two Americans at a hotel in Japan, an aging actor and a recent college graduate, that does not feel exploitative despite the difference in age of the film’s characters.
In all three films of his trilogy, Guadagnino seems to suggest that true love can flourish in extraordinary contexts and that this in fact might be the primary condition that must be satisfied for love to arise. After all, it is desire that precedes love and not the other way around. Love has the pressure, sometimes insurmountable, to be sanctified and must be felt mutually whereas desire can blossom within any person and live uninhibited. Only in certain circumstances can desire give way to love as evidenced time and time again within Guadagnino’s trilogy. But desire, in itself, may always be present. Sometimes to destructive effect as in I Am Love and The Bigger Splash, but also to immense beauty as in Call Me By Your Name.