Emotion is scary. Permitting oneself to feel, knowing full well that the sensation is fleeting — that to feel joy, one must know sadness as well. To feel is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is frightening. Still, people pine after profound emotion and rich connection with each other because the alternative is to numb oneself to the world.
In his newest film, “Call Me by Your Name,” Luca Guadagnino explores this idea as he follows Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet, “Lady Bird”), the 17-year-old son of an architecture professor, through one beautifully ephemeral summer in the 1980s.
Every summer, Elio spends his vacation in Italy with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg, “A Serious Man”), his mother (Amira Cassar, “The Forbidden Room”) and a grad student assisting in Mr. Perlman’s research.
The film opens on the onset of another such summer with Elio peering from his second story window of his father’s idyllic Italian manor as this summer’s grad student, Oliver (Armie Hammer, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”), arrives exhausted from the US. Upon first meeting each other, Oliver asks Elio how he fills his summers, to which Elio dryly
replies that he waits for winter
Days, hours, minutes and days again pass between scenes as Elio circles around Oliver, at once intimidated and intrigued by the confident man who has entered his house. Elio fills his time reading, transcribing music, swimming, sunbathing, engaging in a casual fling with a local girl and all the while inching closer and closer to Oliver.
Guadagnino’s camera is as transient as the summer days: scenes blend into each other as Elio’s summer progresses in a tranquil reverie that few viewers may ever know. As the days ebb and flow, Elio finds himself grappling with feelings of attraction to Oliver.
He and Oliver orbit each other, each making cautious, shaky advances and testing each other’s waters for affirmation. Slowly, the two open up to each other and begin to develop a deep bond, both physically and emotionally.
Guadagnino’s intention is not necessarily to depict a strictly gay romance. Rather, he depicts how a deep, intimate connection can blossom between two individuals, who happen to be men, once they open themselves to each other.
Initially, Elio clearly fears his attraction to Oliver, masking it with a clumsy aloofness. He steels himself to his emotions, a numbness that is comforting. But, as time passes, Elio gives into his feelings. He allows himself the pleasure of being with Oliver, if only for the summer. He allows himself the jubilation of dancing through the streets of Bergamo with his lover even though he knows it will not last.
Oliver and Elio’s tender advances and embraces, their smiles and furtive glances are punctuated by Sufjan Stevens’s ethereal soundtrack. At once airy and haunting, Stevens’s songs reflect the transience of Oliver and Elio’s summer bliss while reflecting the permanence of the memories they will share.
Moreover, Guadagnino’s camera complements this euphoria well. The Italian countryside is painted by the perpetual gaze of a brilliant sun. Rich colors pop off the screen, convincing viewers that, for the time being at least, Elio is in a paradise.
Amidst the beauty, Stuhlbarg’s Mr. Perlman punctuates the leisure with explorations of Greco-Roman statues, commenting on how the male figures depicted dare viewers to desire them. Guadagnino, too, wants to evoke the desire of Elio and Oliver. He wants to goad viewers into desiring and experiencing the pleasure on the screen before them, as Elio and Oliver acquiesce to their lust for each other.
When the summer ends, as it must, it is bittersweet. For Elio, the winter that inevitably follows will no longer be so graciously welcomed. The reverie has ended, but both Elio and viewers are grateful to have experienced it while it still was.
In depicting the fleeting, dreamy quality of Elio’s summer, Guadagnino’s direction is remarkable, but he often seems so caught up in Elio’s environs that he forgets to reflect Elio’s own emotions through the camera.
In the tender moments between Oliver and Elio — when they make their first advances on each other, when they furtively lay hands on each other for the first time, when they impulsively, nervously, excitedly kiss in the seclusion of a small creek — the camera is stoic. To an extent, viewers can infer the tension and the energy in the air, but the movie would
affect viewers more intimately if the pleasure and pure adrenaline of a first love were better captured by Guadagnino’s otherwise capable eye.
Despite this shortcoming, “Call Me by Your Name” is potent enough to affect most audience members profoundly. In making this film, Guadagnino was clearly not interested in making a movie just about sexuality; rather, he wanted to immortalize the blissful pleasure of companionship: the kind of companionship that all viewers long to have, in whatever form it may take.