For once, believe the hype – Call Me By Your Name is one of the greatest LGBT films of the decade, and as year end “best of” lists draw ever closer, it definitely seems likely unsurpassable as the finest of the year. It’s incredibly hard for me to talk about this film without just hurling adjectives at the page; it’s tender, beautiful, sexy, hilarious and deeply moving – a romance story for the ages, directed and acted with a passionate sincerity that makes it utterly irresistible.
Set “somewhere in Northern Italy” during a six week period in Summer 1983, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is holidaying with his family in a quiet, picturesque village that’s boring during the summer months, when everybody there has packed up and left for holidays of their own. His academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) has invited a graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer) to stay with them over the summer for a research project. Despite charming the family and the town’s other visiting residents, Elio initially takes a disliking to Oliver and his overtly American affectations – that is, until he starts showing him around town, slowly building a bond that grows to something more physical, and eventually, more emotionally deep.
Adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel by legendary writer/director James Ivory, and directed by the surely soon to be legendary Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, the film takes a classic coming of age premise within LGBT fiction and transforms it into something extraordinary and infinitely heartfelt. Although this is to be expected from Ivory, whose sincerity always shines through in his directorial efforts (most notably A Room with a View and The Remains of the Day), it’s a breakthrough in Guadgnino’s back catalogue – his films are stylish, entertaining and engrossing, but up until now, have seldom been emotionally arresting. Here, entwined with a brilliant soundtrack that mixes classical music with 80’s pop hits and some new songs by Sufjan Stevens (arguably the greatest he has yet written), his aesthetic decisions are every bit the equal to the moving tale at the foreground.
The style of his latest effort isn’t as pronounced, but it’s still there; from the gorgeous opening credits until the tear-inducing closing credits, which feel like unique in terms of cinematic storytelling on this level, to the sumptuous cinematography and carefully constructed shot compositions, everything has been stylised to within an inch of its life. The only difference is that this time, it can become easy to ignore, as it is so deeply entwined with a moving story of blossoming emotions at the foreground. Guadagnino’s directorial prowess in carefully composing every single frame means that Call Me By Your Name will reward repeat viewings – and will leave you feeling moved every single time.
This is thanks in no small part to the brilliant casting choices. Hammer and Chalamet have such natural chemistry, you can see exactly why the film developed a devoted, obsessed fanbase before the film was even released to cinemas. For both actors, this will likely be their pivotal role, the performance in which all future performances they deliver will be judged against – they manage to expertly show an instant sexual infatuation with each other, yet still keep their performances tightly controlled and restrained, making the growing affection between the pair feel all the more believable as a result. Although the film rests on the shoulders of these two magnificent leading performances, the entire supporting ensemble are uniformly great.
From Michael Stuhlbarg’s dryly comic father (a performance that is certainly, in my eyes at least, the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this awards season), to the minor roles of visiting houseguests that all make an impression due to how hilariously these characters are written, Ivory’s screenplay manages to humanise every person onscreen. Not a single role feels wasted – even if it doesn’t factor in to the central narrative, Guadagnino’s humanistic direction ensures that you remember each and every character.
It’s worth mentioning that, although happy with the finished product, Ivory was concerned with the lack of full frontal male nudity in the film, when his screenplay was far more open on this front. As great as it is to see an 89 year old man call for more explicit sexuality within the film, this criticism seems like a moot point – because Call Me By Your Name is anything but conservative. Guadagnino’s one misstep may be panning the camera round to show the outside garden during the first sex scene, but there is a frank sexuality at play here that isn’t remotely compromised by this sole awkward decision. A scene that will go down in history as the “peach scene” is here played with upmost sincerity, whereas other movies would use it as a gross out, American Pie style setpiece. This scene leads to Elio’s breakdown at failing to keep up with his emotions, showing the toll sexual exploration would have on a young man during an era of stigma surrounding the gay community due to the then topical AIDS crisis (which goes unmentioned in the movie- all we get is a brief mention of “sinning” from Oliver). Guadagnino’s film is sexually open, but just doesn’t feel explicit due to the fact that the sex feels grounded in real emotions- clumsy, awkward, utterly real emotions.
I am absolutely in love with Call Me By Your Name, for all the reasons listed above and more. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking, from a director and cast on the top of their respective games, that results in a gay romance for the ages.