I was so encapsulated by Andre Aciman’s breathtaking 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name, that when I saw the film adaption appear in the programme for the BFI London Film Festival this year, I was hesitant to see it at all, fearing that it would somehow diminish my enjoyment of the book. I consequently arrived for the screening with a feeling of angst and nervous anticipation. I needn’t have. If anything, Luca Guadanigno’s masterpiece merely served to deepen my affection for the story.
This is film making at its very best; it is a beautiful love story, a story of gorgeous subtlety and vulnerability, and the combination of James Ivory’s evocative screenplay, Guadanigno’s sensitive direction, Sayombhu Mukdeepprom’s atmospheric camera work, Sufjan Stevens’ mesmerising soundtrack, together with some of the most authentic, honest performances I have seen on screen, from Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, makes Call Me By Your Name one of the films of the year.
Mr Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife (Amira Casar) invite an academic houseguest annually to join them in their villa in Lombardy in Northern Italy for the summer. Their seventeen year-old son, Elio (Chalamet), is a reluctant host – he has to give up his room and put up with a succession of annual bores who, in exchange for helping his father out with some letter writing and cataloguing of archaeological research, are getting a pretty sweet deal of sunshine, summer fruit, and swimming, be it in the family pool or in the nearby Lake Garda. When Oliver (Hammer), dashing, mid-twenties, and the intellectual equal of Elio’s father, arrives, there is an immediate sense he is different from those who have preceded him. Where there is a feeling of disposability about the previous houseguests (none of whom are mentioned by name), there is an immediate sense of permanence about Oliver. Even when he disappears for evenings to gamble or go dancing in Crema, their local town, Guadanigno creates a feeling that he is always there, dominating the thoughts of Elio (and the rest of the family).
Elio is captivated by Oliver – his consummate ease, his use of ‘Later’ as a device for shortening a conversation, the fact that he proudly wears a star of David around his neck. The pair’s veiled flirtation displays Guadanigno’s touch and ability to show and not tell at its best; we’re aware of Elio’s, but have to look more closely for Oliver’s. It is a guessing game so enthralling, so imploring, so true.
There are numerous beautifully framed hints, pained looks through doorframes, pinched glances across the dinner table when Oliver is there, raw discomfort and concern from Elio when he’s not. This flirtation takes time to truly blossom into something more, to the extent that, when Oliver continues to disarm Elio with a brief romance with Elio’s friend Chiara, we start to feel a frustration with ‘later’ and a sense of if not now, when?
Yet when romance does start to fruit, it is encapsulating, whether through the medium of a peach, or in moments of still reflection the pair share with one another. It is a mastery of James Ivory’s screenplay and the performances of Hammer and Chalamet, that so little is said, yet so much is felt. Chalamet, in particular, is outstanding in his ability to convey sophisticated vulnerability and heart. It is a performance of utter honesty, and I have rarely seen anything like it from an actor his age – it is tear evoking in a number of places. Hammer, meanwhile, delivers the sort of performance that his debut as the Winkelwoss twins in The Social Network promised. Their physical difference, Hammer’s broad, mature, muscular frame set against Chalamet’s skinnier boyishness, provokes an intriguing, controversial debate on how we view our couples, though I struggle to believe that those who have criticised the couple’s age gap have actually even seen this lengthy feature.
If only it were longer. The sense of inevitable ending always bubbles under the surface. That this is put off by a trip together to Bergamo merely makes the agony harder felt when they have to part at the end of the summer – Elio’s telephone call from the train station to his mother, as he desperately tries to maintain control of his emotions, is heartbreaking.
It would be easy to write an Italian summer’s worth of reviews about Call Me By Your Name without mentioning the performances of Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s parents. There is a knowing ease with which they occupy the screen, never pulling focus away from a story, which is very definitely Elio’s, yet always adding clever touches and a feeling of authenticity to the piece. When Stuhlbarg counsels Elio following Oliver’s departure, we become witness to a monologue that is delivered with such warmth, truth and gentle wisdom that you feel every inch on the sofa with him. He tells Elio that “to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything” is to never really live or love at all.
As the camera holds Chalamet’s gaze for a final shot which evokes such feelings of loss and longing, and which lasts the length of Sufjan Stevens beautiful ‘Visions of Gideon’, one ceases to believe he’s acting at all. I found it impossible not to become utterly encapsulated by this film, and sat right through the credits trying to take in what I had seen. I wasn’t the only one.
C.S. Lewis once wrote ‘there is no safe investment. To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken”. If you want to find heart in art this Autumn, I cannot think of a safer investment than a trip to see Call Me By Your Name. Your heart may indeed be wrung and broken by it, but it is a piece of sublime beauty.
Call Me By Your Name is in cinemas now
Feature image –
Left to right: Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio
Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics