Since the first previews of Luca Guadagnino’s sultry summertime romance Call Me By Your Name hit the festival circuit, the film has garnered wide praise from critics and audiences alike (there were several people at the screening I went to who gleefully confessed that they had seen it twice). Given that it has generated Oscar buzz, comparisons to Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, and even Ang Lee’s gay classic Brokeback Mountain abounded from initial reviews.
And, undoubtedly, Call Me By Your Name is another fantastic addition to the gay film canon, Yet something about it evades that category. Unlike the aforementioned movies, it’s an adaptation of a devastating novel (full disclosure, one of my favorites) written by Andre Aciman. When it came out in 2007, a New York Times review described it as “a Proustian meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation and something of an epitaph” – words that Call Me By Your Name manages to surpass.
Set in the 1980’s, “somewhere in the north of Italy”, Elio (played by the expressive Timothee Chalamet) is the precocious son of an academic who becomes infatuated by his father’s doctoral assistant, Oliver: a brash, confident, classically handsome American (Armie Hammer). Through piano recitals, discussions about literature, and bike rides to the local town, a relationship develops. Despite a moving script from James Ivory and Walter Fasano, both unflinching and tender, the will-they-won’t-they-is-he-isn’t-he narrative emerges from the unbroken tension between their conversations and wayward glances.
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s dreamy, sensual cinematography – where every scene could have been lifted from a sun kissed holiday snapshot – is both urgent and drowsy. Even as much of the film is spent watching Elio and Oliver circle around each other, soundtracked by instrumental music, disco numbers and Sufjan Stevens, discussing sculptures and literature, its pace never falters. It’s easy to see how a romance like this – a tender, quasi-forbidden relationship between an older man and a teenager- could have fallen into saccharine oversaturation. Yet, it remains piercingly honest. Elio abandons all pretence of teenage apathy as he inches closer to Oliver: a dinner time squabble over the intricacies of Italian politics is both funny and realistic, and when Elio and Oliver are circling around each other, they’re acutely aware that their feelings are unlike anything they’ve felt before.
There are now more portrayals of queer love on screen than ever before – worthy of praise not just because they’re gorgeous pieces of art, but also because of the oft-forgotten narratives that they bring to life. Guadagnino views Call Me By Your Name as a film about family: “It’s about the invisible bonds… and the capacity of compassion between generations and people in a way transform people for the best.” In a standout speech in one of the film’s last scenes, Elio’s gruff father – played by Michael Stuhlbarg – reminds him, with a twinkle in his eye, how lucky he is to have found something so special, despite how he retreats into himself. More than anything else, that one minute manages to cut straight through to the beating heart of the film. Call Me By Your Name, despite the specificity of its central character’s desires, manages to capture that universal feeling that all good things must come to an end.