Directed by: Luca Guadagnino/2017
Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino invites us to take in the beauty of his beloved country as he directs the film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, the book by André Aciman. James Ivory (who directed Howard’s End, Remains of the Day, and A Room with a View) has penned the screenplay for a gorgeously shot film that captures the sexual awakening of a young boy on the verge of adulthood.
The film follows Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a seventeen year old who has been given all that life has to offer as he lives on a wealthy Italian estate in Northern Italy with his parents. His mother Annella (Amila Casar) is a translator, and a woman who values the written word, often translating books and poetry. His father, Mr. Perlman, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a college professor who focuses on the Greco-Roman world, turning up beautiful discoveries of antiquities in places like the bottom of Lake Garda. This particular summer, his father has taken on an American research assistant named Oliver (Armie Hammer) who will live in their home as he works alongside Mr. Perlman.
The film takes its time in letting you get to know these characters. Their daily lives, rhythms, and passions are slowly and delicately revealed against the backdrop of the Italian countryside. From the growing and picking of fruit in the orchard, to the carefree moments of a summer day spent reading and swimming, we settle in to the daily life of this particular family, much like Oliver who is learning the vast differences between life in America with all of its hustle and bustle, and that of Italy where life is experienced in a way that savors each moment with the sights, smells, and flavors that coalesce together.
We learn that Elio is extremely intelligent, having been raised by two academic minds, and is a gifted pianist and guitarist, who is quite adept at not only playing the difficult classical pieces, but also at reinterpreting them in various styles. He is also a teenager who is very much a part of his culture in the early 1980’s when this story is set. He hangs with his friends, smoking and drinking, and listens to bands like The Clash. He also begins a flirtatious fling with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel), a French girl who lives in the closest town.
Through all of the daily rhythms of his life, we see that Elio is confused by the mysterious American working for his father. This is a man who is quite impressive in both his stature (Hammer is 6’5″), and his bold confidence. Oliver, in just a short time has learned the lay of the land, gone dancing and hooked up with some of the most beautiful women in the town, and found the local card game in town with the men, all while picking up enough of the Italian language to endear himself to the locals. Elio keeps his distance, but also begins to notice a desire of his own to be with this 24-year old man, who fascinates his growing curiosity.
While the subject matter might be uncomfortable to many, the film captures the naturally inquisitive nature of falling in love as you seek to discover more and more about someone, while balancing that discovery with passion and lust, eventually seeing it transition into something deeper. Timothée Chalamet, who has already given strong performances in this year’s Lady Bird and the upcoming Hostiles, is surely bound to be nominated for his performance in Call Me By Your Name. He subtly navigates all of the nuances and opposing desires that embody a 17-year old seeking to discover who they are, not only sexually, but as an emerging adult. Armie Hammer also gives a strong performance and may find his name nominated as well. That said, the perceived age gap in the film between these two men is sometimes unsettling as Chalamet looks every bit the 17-year old he is playing (despite being 22), while Hammer looks older than the 24-year old he is playing (he is actually 31).
The film itself is very good, but treads much of the same path as last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, albeit from very different angles and perspectives. While it too is getting some Oscar buzz, I don’t believe it will eventually walk away with an Oscar for Best Picture because of the similarity of subject matter with last year’s winner, but also because there are so many other strong films that should be in contention this year.
Most touching, and understated in some respects, is the deep relationship between Elio and his father. It is a relationship that is often on the periphery of the film, but one that is central to Elio’s journey of self-discovery, and one that demonstrates the love and compassion every parent should aspire to when seeking to affirm their children’s own journey of self discovery, even if the path to that discovery isn’t always the one you, as a parent, would have chosen for them.
While a sequel has already been announced, it seems that it would be overindulgent given the great care that was taken in helping an audience experience this story as it plays out over the one summer that Oliver is there for. The reality of its finality, perfectly captured the tension that young Elio was feeling. To go back would risk nullifying the original journey in some ways. Even so, Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully produced work of art that engages the senses in the same way that the Italian countryside does for these characters as we watch a young man’s journey to self discovery.