The exquisite Call Me by Your Name was originally supposed to be directed by James Ivory, the gay American filmmaker who adapted the script from André Aciman’s novel and who also spent decades as a partner (professionally and personally) to Ismail Merchant. Fortunately, the Italian-set story caught the attention of Luca Guadagnino, the more dynamic and innovative gay director whose previous two films, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, were unabashedly hetero. Their film comes to Tarrant County this week, and like last year’s landmark of gay cinema Moonlight, this is both a superb mood piece and something more.
The film takes place in 1983, when Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is a trilingual 17-year-old with interests in literature and music spending the summer with his Franco-American parents at their sumptuous second home in northern Italy. The love of his life arrives in the person of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who has come to assist Elio’s archeologist dad (the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg) with his work on Roman art. Though Elio spends much of his time chasing after the hot French girl who lives down the road (Esther Garrel), he can’t ignore his attraction to the handsome and somewhat older man who’s sleeping in his bedroom while Elio is relegated to the guest room next door.
This film is a showcase for Guadagnino’s ability to bring out the tactile poetry in surfaces. A Sicilian, he nevertheless finds great visual splendor in the opposite end of his country, including a breathtaking interlude at the Cascate del Serio outside Bergamo. The greenery of that scene contrasts with the cobblestone-paved village of Crema, where much of the film takes place. The director and his Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom create sunlight-kissed urban landscapes that are so inviting that you want to walk into the frame and sit down at a table in the piazza with a limoncello and today’s copy of Corriere della Sera. Another surface that the filmmakers dwell on lovingly is Hammer’s body, which so fascinates Elio. The actor wears quite flattering short shorts for most of the film and makes a compelling object of erotic desire.
No less splendid is the soundtrack. You might think a film set in the ’80s would use the era’s pop music, but this one supplements those songs with piano music by Bach, Ravel, Satie, and John Adams, some of which is played by Chalamet. Two original songs by Sufjan Stevens contribute to the gossamer feeling here, especially “Mystery of Love.” All these elements feed into the mood of languid eroticism and hot afternoons stretching out endlessly before Elio. The beauty on display is intoxicating.
I have to admit, though, I spent much of the first 90 or so of this movie’s 133 minutes wondering if beauty and tone were all it had. The ending proved that notion wrong. The film becomes piercing when the guys realize that their separation is approaching, as Oliver has to return to America. When a devastated Elio returns home after seeing Oliver off at the train station, his dad gives him a profoundly moving and wise speech revealing how much he understands about what his son has been going through. Guadagnino and Ivory dispense with the book’s postlude set 15 years later in favor of an epilogue set that winter, when Elio receives news from Oliver signaling that their love is truly over. The film’s hypnotic final shot is of Elio’s face as he stares into the fireplace at his home while tears roll down his face and Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” plays on the soundtrack. This long shot actually doubles as the film’s closing credit sequence, and it shows the greatness of Chalamet’s performance here. Can you name another movie credit sequence that can make you cry?
My Moonlight comparison from earlier notwithstanding, Call Me by Your Name does land on different themes regarding romance. It’s all about the importance of desiring someone and grasping it, however briefly. Guadagnino’s previous two movies looked at the destructive side of sexual desire, but in this one, Elio’s desire for Oliver and their fleeting idyll of happiness will give shape and meaning to his adult life. The way this seductive, finely wrought, and gently knowing film demonstrates that makes it a masterpiece.
Call Me by Your Name
Starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by James Ivory, based on André Aciman’s novel. Rated R.