Following I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name concludes Luca Guadagnino’s thematic Desire trilogy with a satisfied sigh of crisp, Italian air.
Set in the summer heat of a luxurious family villa in Northern Italy in the 1980s, the film scrutinises the conflicted headspace of Elio Perlman during a sexual awakening that is ignited by the arrival of an older intern of his father’s, a language professor, played by the ever charming Armie Hammer.
A tranquil, impossibly attractive and non-confrontational film, Call Me By Your Name is perhaps amongst the least accurate representations of being an LGBT youth in the 1980s, but its distinct lack of statement (beyond the basic acknowledgements of trial and secrecy that come from telling a gay story) sets it apart as one of the most important and controversial romances in recent memory.
Its controversy of course stems from the age difference between Elio, 17, and Hammer’s Oliver, 24. In the wake of Hollywood coming apart at the seams with new, hideous mistakes of its biggest players arising every day, it’s easy to accuse Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel as similarly degenerate, but this is not a Woody Allen film.
Not only are the sexual encounters frequently initiated by the precocious Elio, to focus on the difference as a negative is to reduce Guadagnino’s careful objectivity. Following a tempestuous summer of flings, drinking and secrets, the camera rests on Elio, unwavering, and asks us to consider whether the right thing was done.
Never specifically celebratory or condemning of Elio and Oliver’s romance, the slow and natural development of the two leads’ performances are enough to demonstrate how effecting their time together has been.
Enriching, educational but fraught and complex, the remote and uncaring setting perhaps leaves these characters too open to exploration without discussion, but the performances on show enrich the film’s not-so-subtle central premise, “is it better to speak or die”, with an alternative that suggests some things can be said without speaking.
Much of the brilliance of Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio emerges from his willingness to stay silent, expressing thrills and sadness through the movements of his body, both sinewy and awkward at a moment’s notice, or the twitches and contortions of his face. Always readable, frequently nonverbal, Chalamet is a remarkable find.
A striking visual palette of light, colour and location, alongside its charming character interactions that, despite how ridiculously cultured and well-read everyone is, are never pretentious or unlikable, make Call Me By Your Name a completely cleansing experience. Long, long shots of Elio and Oliver reading, playing piano or cycling beyond the horizon could come across as self-congratulatory, but the performances are always captivating enough to deserve the lens’ attention.
In a filmscape threatening shorter shots and more frequent cuts, Guadagnino’s ability to judge the exact moment a quiet breather is needed within the narrative is uncanny and very welcome. It’s very rare that a film with a runtime upwards of two hours can earn a near 30 second landscape shot, but here it’s completely natural for a sun-drenched, lethargic summer movie about sexual tension and endless days.
Though its relevance in today’s tumultuous political landscape as a 1980s gay romance that never engages with the appalling oppression and neglect experienced by many of the decade’s LGBT youth is under question, the lack of violence and conflict is surely a step forward for a cinematic movement that naturally presents gay relationships as being as easy and carefree as a straight relationship.
Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio will surely rank amongst this year’s greatest cinematic parents, a wickedly intelligent and accepting professor of language who sets the film’s nonchalant tone from the beginning, and eventually both reaffirms and challenges it in a gorgeously kind speech to his son in the closing ten minutes.
Though not as defining as the likes of Philadelphia, Call Me By Your Name easily slips into the ranks of the finest gay cinema, and romantic cinema in general. With chemistry off the charts, a rarely seen angle to 80s nostalgia and a breezy, youthful pace that always takes a breather when it needs to, Guadagnino’s final entry in his loose trilogy is a stunning piece of work.
A vehicle that will surely launch the career of Timothée Chalamet and reaffirm Armie Hammer as much more than a silly name and the rebooted Lone Ranger (those still unconvinced should also seek out Free Fire, a raucous action comedy that fans of Baby Driver will eat up), the film is guaranteed to make even the most withering cynics crack a number of smiles and breathe a little easier.