There have been a few moments in my film-going life where I’ve come to the end of a film and found myself unable and unwilling to move because of how deeply affected I was. It only happens rarely, and always takes me by surprise. I say often in my reviews that film is a subjective art form and each individual experience of rapture is its own private moment to cherish. At the end of the screening of Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me By My Name’ at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I found myself in such a moment. I can’t account for anyone else in the cinema and their response, I can only tell you my own, and since it’s been barely an hour since I left the cinema, it’s a moment that I’m still very much recovering from. So please forgive my ramblings as I try to put this experience into words.
Set in the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy, the film looks at six weeks in the life of seventeen year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). His father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of antiquities, invites Oliver (Armie Hammer), a university student, to come and study with him in their family home. Over Oliver’s stay, Elio becomes increasingly infatuated with him, an infatuation that slowly builds into a romance that sends Elio reeling.
Based on the book by André Aciman and written by Oscar-nominee James Ivory, ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a transcendent, deeply sensual and enormously moving film, one that beguiles you with its beauty before breaking your heart in the most exquisite way imaginable. Guadagnino, best known for ‘I Am Love’ (2009) and ‘A Bigger Splash’ (2015), takes what could easily have been a perfunctory coming-of-age story and weaves it into something almost indescribable, a piece of cinematic poetry that taps right into that which is deep within all of us: the memory of our first love and our first understandings of ourselves as beings capable of desire and being desired. There are no moments of sweeping melodrama or emotion - Elio’s meticulously crafted journey revels in the quiet interior struggles that are rarely ever spoken, especially in young men, those enormous emotions that cause cataclysms in our hearts but the outside world can never be a part of. The queer coming-of-age story it presents is both idealised and remarkably grounded, examining Elio’s exploration of his body and what it is capable of, both in his attraction to Oliver and the hormonal shifts he has to chart. For Guadagnino, it is the tiny, understated details that fascinate, moments of touch or the proximities of bodies within space, and each one speaks volumes.
The craft of the filmmaking is impeccable from the beginning, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s sublime cinematography and Samuel Deshors’ extraordinary production design capturing the palpable feeling of that kind of summer we never forget. Every frame of the film shudders with longing and possibility, the air thick with sensuality. Ivory’s screenplay is sparse and specific, far more interested in the meaning around the words than necessarily within them. Guadagnino’s directorial command is stunning, creating a film more like a memory, something organic and private that we hold onto for ourselves and ourselves only. The whole film is a pursuit of honesty and truth, never allowing for moments of emotional indulgence. The first act of the film is so carefully constructed, giving us the time to settle in to Elio’s world, setting the stage for what is about to come.
And it is when ‘Call Me By Your Name’ becomes a love story that the film transcends from the beautiful to the sublime. As Elio and Oliver come together, we are met with a succession of staggeringly beautiful exchanges, moments of piercing honesty that fill your heart with immense joy. They come together in breath-catching, careful moments, each of them (especially Elio) savouring each careful, anticipated step. Some might find the age difference between the two uncomfortable, but at no point does the film, and Elio’s need for Oliver is so enormous and so overwhelming that any concerns fall away almost immediately. What this film has to say about the nature of love, our need to follow our hearts and give ourselves permission to feel is monumental, and seeing such a young soul navigate that for the first time is equally exhilarating, breathtaking and heartbreaking. You cannot help but see yourself in Elio, feel his anguish and confusion, fear and desire, and his overwhelming joy when the object of his desires expresses those same desires for him.
What this film has to say about the nature of love, our need to follow our hearts and give ourselves permission to feel, is monumental, and seeing such a young soul navigate that for the first time is equally exhilarating, breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio is simply staggering, one of the finest performances of the year. The incredibly deep heart and soul of the film lies in his work, shockingly honest and emotionally generous whilst also a technical marvel. His understanding of Elio’s journey is extraordinary, and his commitment to the truth of that journey is a wonder to behold. Armie Hammer finally emerges from supporting roles with his beautiful performance as Oliver, sensual and cocky and tender in all the right ways. His performance sparkles with life, allowing us to be just as infatuated and infuriated with him as Elio. The chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is just so goddamn remarkable, the screen erupting with electricity every moment they’re together. They find a connection that’s so real that you can’t help but share in their joy at finding one another. And quietly and beautifully in the background are Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar as Elio’s protective, deeply loving parents, with Stuhlbarg towards the end delivering a moment of astounding humanity that had me holding my breath. Both Chalamet and Stuhlbarg deliver Oscar-worthy performances in this film, Chalamet’s easily one of the finest performances of the decade.
I still find myself unable to comprehend what this film made me feel. As I walked to the train afterwards, I just wanted to sit down in the street and sob. You always hope that you might come across a piece of art that captures the true honesty of being alive the way this film does, and I will probably be recovering from the overwhelming impact it has had on me for months to come. Its final minutes left me shaking, sobbing and breathless, tiny moments of pure perfection that I could barely comprehend as I was watching them. It might be one of the most honest portrayals of adolescence ever captured on film, recalling all the pain, possibility and confusion. It is like a song we all know, one we’re all familiar with, but have long forgotten or buried. This film brings us back to that song, and the memory of it made me weep with joy at finding it again.
‘Call Me By My Name’ is a masterpiece, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Luca Guadagnino has made a film of enormous humanity, a statement on the nature of love that sends shockwaves through you, especially with the powerhouse performance from Timothée Chalamet. I can’t speak for everyone who saw this film with me, I can only speak for myself and my own experience, but this is one I won’t ever forget. This is why I go to the cinema, to see films that can make me feel as alive as this film did. Queer cinema, and cinema as an art form, is all the better for having it.