Call Me By Your Name (NYFF 2017)
Undoubtedly one of the best films to come to the New York Film Festival this year is Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, a sun-drenched story of first love and loss based on the novel by Andre Aciman. While coming-of-age stories have a tendency to rely on clichés and easy answers, Call Me By Your Name treats a boy’s experience of love with a tenderness and sensuality unseen in many mainstream films, queer and straight alike.
Call Me By Your Name opens with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer) in northern Italy, where he’s staying and working at a villa owned by Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlberg), his wife Annella (Amira Casar), and their son, pianist Elio (Timothee Chalamet). Over the course of the season, Oliver and Elio develop an intense, occasionally antagonistic relationship that eventually becomes a summer romance. Their relationship grows, but is stymied by their own uncertainties, the difference in their ages, and Elio’s sexual awakening.
Anything that I can say about the plot of Call Me By Your Name would be inadequate, for this is not a film about plot. It’s about emotion, about youth and sexuality and love; about desire, and the confusion, elation, and anger that comes with it. The film focalizes everything through Elio – the camera gazes at Oliver as Elio does, turning the older man’s body into an object of sensual veneration. But the relationship is mixed with a heavy dose of antagonism, as Elio attempts to navigate the growing attraction and confused emotions that it brings. Oliver is a little distant and tends to head off on his own, even as Elio wants to draw closer to him. The pair engage in a tentative dance, punctuated by moments of friendship and deepening respect. Elio is already engaged in a flirtation with a local friend, but his connection with Oliver grows deeper the more time they spend together. The lyricism of the film works in tandem with the eroticism, never crossing over to exploitation or even discomfort. There’s never overt discussion of their relationship, never discussions about homosexuality or bisexuality, or even sexuality in general. This is a story about first love shorn of clichés and avoiding simplistic solutions to a problem of the characters’ own making.
Hammer and Chalamet are brilliantly matched here – and if there’s any justice in the world, they’d both be nominated for an Oscar. Hammer’s Oliver is slightly aloof, trying to keep Elio at a distance, but constantly circling back to him, fascinated by the young man’s talent and intellect. Yet Oliver remains something of an enigmatic presence, like a fantasy that Elio has made real and will eventually have to give up. Chalamet likewise creates a character relatable and ultimately impenetrable – young, but with a deep intellectual curiosity and confidence. He’s a trifle awkward, not yet grown to manhood – watch the way that Elio struts, or attempts to, or dances, a little disconnected from his own body and not yet in control of it, while Oliver is himself fully embodied. Elio is a shifting force – smug but vulnerable, apparently confident and yet concerned about the way others think of him. Chalamet creates not only a believable character but one that is not always sympathetic, at times a snotty teenager and a vulnerable young man.
Of the supporting cast, Michael Stuhlberg is the standout as Elio’s father, an equally enigmatic – though far more centered – man as his son. Stuhlberg gets the best speech in the entire film, a moving tribute to a father’s love and understanding that forms the film’s moral and emotional core. In a film where answers are neither easy nor always required, this speech catalyzes so many of the emotions that run rampant across the screen, not trying to push them into boxes but rather allowing, encouraging, them to be free and accepted. Stuhlberg delivers his lines with an eloquence and a seriousness that moves and affects without seeking to control.
What all this comes to is that Call Me By Your Name is more than a worthwhile film; it’s a film with something profound to say about love, about desire, and about life itself. There are few works of art that so precisely capture the experience of being young and in love, of the awkwardness and the fear and the absolute joy of desiring and being desired. It deals with what is said and what isn’t said and the space in between. There’s no compartmentalizing, no coming out story, no moral about young love and growing up. It’s a beautiful and emotional story, personal and universal, one with a finite ending and infinite implications.