There is a scene in Call Me by Your Name when Elio’s father, an archeologist dredging up Hellenistic-era statues from the sea, flips through slides of recent findings. One character sighs, remarking how all of the statues are “so incredibly sensual.” These are the perfect words to sum up Call Me by Your Name, an aching, exquisitely-rendered look at a transformative love.
“Summer 1983, Somewhere in Northern Italy” serves as our introduction into director Luca Guadagnino’s dizzyingly beautiful Italian summer. Call Me by Your Name, adapted from André Acimans’ novel, follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chamalet) as he falls in love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s research assistant for the summer, tracing every awkward encounter and frustrated sigh.
The film takes place in an isolated, idyllic utopia. We are given an intoxicating summer — bees buzz by lazily, ripe fruit droops from trees, and soft golden light lingers on into the evening. He has created a world in which reading tattered paperbacks and simply being is enough.
Piano features prominently throughout the film — Elio is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and plays variations of Bach on the piano for Oliver. But Call Me by You Name is able to weave together classical music and 80s pop hits seamlessly, marrying the music to the movie. The most expressive music is Sufjan Stevens’ poignant original compositions, perfectly situated at such points of the film so as to essentially trace its emotional arc.
Guadagnino worked with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to give the film a vibrant, yet somehow faded feeling. The film is sun-kissed, but tinged with melancholy — like bittersweet nostalgia.
Elio, precocious yet impetuous, lives an unusual but lovely life in the summer of 1983. In the company of his parents, two international academics portrayed by Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg, Elio spends each summer at a villa in northern Italy that his mother has inherited. Their house is filled with books and vibrant discussion, and the family seamlessly transitions between French, Italian, and English.
The Perlmans could easily have felt pretentious, but they never do. There is a natural intimacy in the family’s relationships with one another, and one could almost imagine stepping out into the warm Italian evening to a lively discussion over dinner on their patio.
There is a subtly brilliant scene where the usually sunny Italian countryside succumbs to rain, and the family curls up on the couch. Elio’ places his head in his mother’s lap as she translates a 16th-century German fairy tale to him and his father, the soft music from a record in the background intermingling with the sound of the rain. Elio’s mother’s gaze lingers on them, asking unspoken questions of both as she reads, “Is it better to speak or to die?”
Oliver is clearly an American outsider among the Perlmans. Elio scoffs as he watches Oliver, “the usurper,” arrive from the window of his room which he will have to give up for the remainder of the summer. The 20-something grad student quickly falls into place with the family, debating the etymology of the word “apricot” with Elio’s father and biking off into town on his own. However, the family continues to gently mock Oliver’s nonchalant “later” whenever he leaves the house.
Elio spends his days transcribing music, reading, or effortlessly playing the piano. He attracts the attention of a few French girls staying in the town, but his true fascination lies with Oliver, whose tall frame and chiseled good looks directly call to mind the very statues that he and Professor Perlman are studying. Guadagnino traces the two young men’s attraction to one another delicately. There’s a gentleness to each interaction, undercut by a rippling intensity of feeling.
The film’s long takes often give way to short bursts, giving us the rhythm of memory and of desire. We not only watch Elio fall in love for the first time, but the film gives us cues, pulling the viewer under the summer’s intoxicating spell.
Elio finds ways to be around Oliver — biking into town with him and taking him to the local swimming hole, but he is slow to confront his feelings. He is unsure how to read Oliver’s laid-back attitude and confidence, almost flinching from Oliver’s casual touch on the shoulder. For his part, Oliver is clearly interested in Elio but wary to act since Elio is his boss’s young son and relatively inexperienced.
Hammer is brilliant as he skillfully displays cocky, self-assurance while still possessing a certain vulnerability. Oliver lets Elio initiate. However, the film is clearly Chamalet’s, who at 21, gives a mature and thoughtful performance. Every motion possesses a restlessness and an impatient physicality. His face conveys an inconceivable depth of emotion — the heartbreaking last five minutes of the film are solely a close-up of Chamalet’s face.
The gaze of the camera focuses almost solely on the two young men. It captures the brimming tension of the creaky hallway between their adjoining bedrooms. A long take holds on the departing figures of Elio and Oliver biking into a golden afternoon. It follows them holding each other and dancing and singing on an empty street at twilight, both expressing a boundless joy.
Elio’s confession of love bubbles up out of him, words hurriedly tumbling out of his mouth. They come together in clumsy abandon. However, their happiness is tinged with melancholy, trapped by the ephemerality of the summer. It is a look at two people trying to find one another before it is too late.
And while the film places much of the focus on Elio and Oliver, Stuhlbarg still manages to deliver a profoundly moving monologue that serves as the emotional climax of the film, telling his son to let pain live alongside happiness: “Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste.”
Call Me by Your Name feels like remembering, with its gentle, fluid cadence and the swirling emotion of youth. In some ways, it is not a literal rendering of Elio’s summer, but his bittersweet, treasured memory. It is a coming-of-age story that possesses none of the cliché lessons but is instead deeply sincere and perceptive.