As the characters in Call Me by Your Name switch tongues from English to Italian to French, director Luca Guadagnino blends the sensibilities of North American and European independent cinema. The result is lyrical, accessible and one of 2017’s finest films.
Young Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) world is turned upside down when Armie Hammer’s Oliver arrives at his family’s Italian villa for a summer, working as his father’s research assistant. Oliver shuns Elio’s curiosity at first, but it’s not long before the two young men begin to spiral together.
In Call Me by Your Name, Chalamet is a revelation. Even after promising peripheral roles in Homeland and Interstellar, he has matured massively in just a few years, and his brave performance is an embodiment of male teenage emotion. Broad physical choices risk seeming unnatural and exaggerated, but, in fact, reveal so much about Elio’s swirling testosterone. With jean shorts tugged up around his navel, Chalamet looks like a clown with a cowboy’s swagger, arms hanging away from his body, as if ready to draw Cupid’s six-shooter. Elsewhere, his sleepily pensive eyes capture a James Dean-esque teenhood.
Even that slick 50s teen icon couldn’t help but marvel at Oliver’s braggadocious confidence. The American’s voracious appetite is mesmerising, as he plunges spoons into barely boiled eggs and gulps down thick, sticky apricot juice. Hammer has long been a reliable performer, but Guadagnino brings out a whole new side to him: his remarkable physicality. He towers over Chalamet’s slender six feet. However, whether Oliver’s ducking through dusty doorways or grooving away on a neon smoked dance floor (in the best sequence of its kind since Oscar Isaac brought the moves in Ex Machina), Hammer’s Oliver is in total control of his endless body.
While Guadagnino’s attention never slips from the wonderful central duo, his secondary and peripheral characters are also beautifully drawn. From the enchanting DJ to the diligent archeologists working with Elio’s father, Guadagnino creates a living, breathing conjuring of Northern Italy in 1983. However, none of these side characters are as wholesome as Elio’s professor father, played by exquisite character actor Michael Stuhlbarg. A jovial light throughout the film, Stuhlbarg diverts his joie de vivre in a beautiful (and scene-stealing) father-son heart-to-heart towards the end of the film.
Like the best cinema, Call Me by Your Name is immensely rewarding on repeat viewings. Having a firmer grasp on the untold feelings during the first act reveals the performances’ layered details. Likewise, directorial touches adorn the frame, “forelighting” (rather than foreshadowing) the characters’ desires. Guadagnino furnishes his extraordinary setting (a 17th-century mansion he filmed in to compensate for the fact he couldn’t afford to buy it) with banging balcony doors, mounds of fruit on the breakfast table and dripping swimming shorts slung over bath taps to dry. All these seductive details are captured with glorious 35 mm film. The lazy European summer glows with nostalgic warmth, as the textured stock captures the haze of the beating sun and the azure blues of water and sky.
The body becomes an additional canvas. While the nudity is relatively minimal, Guadagnino instead explores the exposure of the clothed body. Elio apes Oliver’s style, and the two characters dance around each other, mirroring sartorial touches such as their shared Converse sneakers. They both wear high and white versions of the American classic, although slight differences reveal so much. Oliver leads the way with a leather exterior and the alternative star and chevron logo. Elio, however, is left trailing with traditional canvas and the original Chuck Taylor badge.
The film’s length (132 minutes) supports a full, ebbing and flowing romance and gives these characters enough room to breathe. It results in a filmic journey that feels both far shorter and longer than the six-week plot. Guadagnino still finds ways to tease, despite the ample length. Immersive, emotional scenes cut before I was ready to leave them and wonderful musical tracks are denied romantic fade-outs. Call Me by Your Name skips through time like a dream, or a calcified, powerful memory. Guadagnino succeeds remarkably in working the themes into the craft and, like love that ends too soon, so does the film.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.