Elio Perlman, not yet a man, hardly a boy, knows everything. He knows everything about the things that no one knows anything about. I’m sure he knows more about the setting of Call Me by Your Name than Call Me by Your Name does – to fuel a sense of ambiguity, the film begins with a locale distinction of “Somewhere in Northern Italy.” He knows how Liszt would’ve altered Bach’s “Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo” (Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother), how Busoni would’ve altered Liszt’s alteration, that perhaps Bach didn’t write the Capriccio at all (say he did: the dedication was to his brother).
He knows that the Battle of Piave – got me, though I looked it up and found out that it is otherwise known as the First Battle of Monte Grappa – was one of the most lethal battles of World War I; “170,000 people died,” he tells Oliver, his housemate for the summer, as they stand baking in the sun, admiring the battle’s commemorative statue through tinted glasses. It’s nestled in the center of a piazetta named after Vittorio Emanuele III. Across the way is the Visconti Castle which was commissioned in 1355 by the Lord of Milan, Bernabò Visconti, hence its name (he doesn’t mention this bonus information, but he knows it).
Elio is a walking Double Jeopardy! round, the boy in school that the bullies wish they could torment but, alas, cannot, since all the girls they have crushes on have a crush on him. Instead, they sheepishly ask him to teach them piano on Wednesdays after school. By their second session, they’ve fallen in love with him, too.
This 17-year-old philomath transcribes music in between bites of perfectly ripe albicocca, the juicy apricots that he helped his mother pick. Anchise, the groundskeeper at the Perlman family’s villa, first strolls to Elio for approval of the fish he’s just caught before he shows anyone else; a smile from Elio seems to reassert one’s worth as much as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Anchise can fish with confidence again tomorrow. When friends of Elio’s make inferential claims about Oliver’s interest in one of their female friends, they look to Elio for approval on their thoughts – to gauge the meaning of his often-silent reactions, they have to lean forward, for he’s sitting in front of the group. He looks out over a club crowd like a professor might watch his students enjoy their prom. He silently broods until the proper song comes on. He knows he can move better than anyone there. The Psychedelic Furs merely provide the nudge.
He reads books with the purpose of a bee pollinating a flower, rides bikes through the Italian countryside and urban centers with the poise of a multifaceted tour guide, and speaks more languages than a $199 subscription to Rosetta Stone. Elio Perlman is a jack of all trades who has just so happened to master each and every one of those trades.
And yet, the weight of the knowledge he carries is negligible, rendered insignificant by the things that matter.
Because Elio Perlman, as it turns out, knows nothing at all.
Reading André Aciman’s masterful novel, Call Me by Your Name, requires a fine amount of patience, as does watching the luscious, tangible-feeling 2017 film adaptation by the Italian director Luca Guadagnino. But not necessarily the kind of patience you may imagine. No, not the age-old “trust me, it gets good!” patience that friends insist upon as they force you through the 2012 Kevin James vehicle, Here Comes the Boom. This kind of obligatory stamina is arthouse catnip. It’s powered by beautiful cinematography and mysterious glances, two elements that either get you critically derided as “empty” or bought by Sony Pictures Classic.
This particular rendering of that edge-of-your-seat viewing experience is sensitive and hypnotizing, scribed by romantic doyen James Ivory and soundtracked in part by Sufjan Stevens. Passing knowledge of the book/film’s plot will tell you that, at some point, Elio and Oliver (played with astonishing chemistry in the film by Timothée Chalamet and A**ie H**mer, respectively) will kiss, or fall in love, or both, and that they will most certainly call one another by the other’s name. But you’ll have to wait a while. That’s done tactfully on Guadagnino’s part. He doesn’t want you to squirm – which is unlikely anyway, given that the backdrop you’re forced to endure as the will-they-won’t-they-do-it-already romance plays out is that of the Italian country – but he desperately wants you to ache. To wonder. To grasp for.
It’s a masterclass in juxtaposition, placing Elio – the boy who knows everything and nothing – in the position of the vehicle and have his emotional course dictate that of the viewer, who is equally anxious, just without the stakes. Just as much a filmmaking clinic in juxtaposition is the brilliant behavioral dichotomy between Chalamet’s Elio, defined by a prevalent boyish paranoia, and H**mer’s Oliver, who spends all his time oozing confidence and charisma, even when confronted by a situation that might threaten his careless leisure.
H**mer’s voice has an affluent timbre to it. It never makes it through a film without being heard, if not due to his once-undeniable appeal due to its refined tonality. Chalamet’s is the opposite. It has a slight pre-pubescent rasp to it, where it sometimes sounds like Elio has been correcting people all day or, as it just so happens, finds himself nervous. How Chalamet plays the infatuated Elio – never subverting his childlike innocence but never afraid of asserting his maturity – challenges H**mer in response. At 6-foot-5-inches, he towers over Chalamet (5 feet, 10 inches) throughout the movie, and while his character may not mean to, Oliver warily makes Elio feel small.
It even happened immediately upon his arrival. Oliver, without skipping a beat, greets Elio and diminishes him to the size of an apricot kernel. Later, though, he’ll inflate him to the size of the Milan Cathedral. Guadagnino frames Oliver and Elio, with the inescapable help of Ivory and Aciman, as songs played in warring chords but have convivial melodies. Not oil and water, but certainly not water with lemon.
Elio would give anything to understand why.
Elio can’t begin to comprehend why Oliver acts the way he acts, speaks the way he speaks, why the second he arrives at the Perlman villa, where he’ll serve as the apprentice to Elio’s father for the summer, he slumps onto the bed – in Elio’s room, though it belongs to Oliver for the next few months – and falls asleep. This is rude, no? No matter. Mafalda, the Perlman’s maid, clangs the dinner bell. This is to stir the sleepy guest. Just in case, Elio knocks on the door to his old bedroom. No answer. Just breathing. Prolonged, heavy sighs produced by slumber.
Does he wake him up? How should he? He decides to drop a book on the floor. Oliver shoots up, and Elio explains the reason for the commotion (“We’re being called for dinner.”). “I’m probably gonna pass,” Oliver says. What’s more impolite: the fact that, upon arrival, he immediately begins to nap, or that he elects to skip his first dinner? “Will you make an excuse for me to your mom, though? Thanks, man.” The thanks come before Elio’s reply.
Oliver is done with this conversation and is done with having someone interrupt his nap. “Later,” he tells Elio. It doesn’t appear to be an adieu, but a command. The same happens later, after Elio shows Oliver around town. Oliver is done with his help, thanks him for it, and departs with his flippant, trademark parting remarks: “Later.”
None of these behaviors seem to deter the others. “I think he’s shy. You’ll grow to like him,” Professor Perlman (a revelatory Michael Stuhlbarg) insists. Elio is uncertain. “What if I grow to hate him?”
“Oh, pocino,” Annella replies, simultaneously scolding and comforting her “little one,” so goes the translation. It’s a way for her to reassure, perhaps along the lines of what her husband was getting at moments ago. “You’ll grow to like him.” But are we so sure?
If only they knew.