The summer of 1983, hidden in a stunning villa, somewhere in northern Italy with hidden pockets of secrecy to escape to; this is where director Luca Guadagnino lays the scene for his dazzling romance Call Me By Your Name. Following the principle style of his other films I Am Love (2009), and A Bigger Splash (2015), the film explores an ongoing theme of urgency in desire. The film’s protagonist is a playful and handsome young man Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who is a multitalented musician – both gifted and incredibly driven towards strengthening his craft. He commits to his love and practice of music, but the storyline asserts he has become increasingly bored with the trajectory of every summer in which he spends endless days with his parents in their gorgeous and carefree home. It would be catastrophic to call this film a depiction of a teenage or a summer romance, though that’s what the plot could surely imply.
The film begins with a playful kick, the title font is handwritten, conveying a sense of rustic innocence, and the musical score is a jumpy piano tune, something that might be played to children in an afternoon course. The music nor the style is explicitly jubilant or overly captive in a sense of positivity, rather, it pulls us in with a sense of whimsical excitement and joy; something for which narrative arcs often tell us can soon lead to instability and drama. Happiness can only last for so long, and certainly this film is aware of that.
The story was adapted from André Aciman’s novel of the same name, tracking an uncharted romance between Elio and a slightly older man, Oliver (Armie Hammer) who has come to reside in his family’s stunning home for the summer. Almost immediately we pick up on Elio’s undeniable attraction for Oliver – his subtle gazes and the way he perches from his chair in fascination (or jealousy) while watching Oliver sensually dance with a woman on a night out.
While Elio sees Oliver dancing, he puts his necklace in his mouth, one of the only non-sexual ways we see him react to his attraction, and realises he wants to dance with him – and indeed he does. He stands up, slides round the dance floor, and never really stops for the rest of the film. We can see Elio’s undulated desire for Oliver in what feels like every frame. There’s such an eloquent easiness to the framing and movement of the camera, every zoom or tight-framed shot shows the simultaneous pain and exhilaration that Elio feels for this man.
Before the romance even begins, Guadagnino packs in all kinds of subtle ambiguities and visual symbolic gestures (perhaps sometimes a bit too much in terms of the phallic signifiers) but undoubtedly, the most striking of all is simply the acting of Chalamet.
Without saying a word, the audience fully grasps the shivering uncertainty and pulsating emotions that comes along with a desire that’s not yet attained. Though the story is rather unique, the tumultuous track that is Elio’s first love is undeniably relatable, it’s both painful and beyond exciting to watch because it feels so strikingly personal; both in credit to Guadagnino’s purposeful ease of direction and the crystal clear beauty of 35mm film, but also the Chalamet’s cunning ability to translate terse language and surreptitious behaviour into an almost saccharine expression of an uncontrollable desire.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: BFI London Film Festival