THOMAS NGUYEN reviews Luca Guadagino’s latest film, a celebration and exploration of budding queer love.
Due to its emotional intelligence and remarkably self-aware direction, Call Me by Your Name proves to be more than just another queer love story. It offers one of the most full-hearted and poignant romances of recent cinema, drawn between the precocious adolescent Elio and his father’s house guest, Oliver. Directed by Luca Guadagnino as the last part of his Desire trilogy, it follows the acclaimed I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015). Overall, the film is an emotionally-charged celebration of love in its purest state, one that is eminently nuanced and impeccably executed.
This transcription of André Aciman’s eponymous 2007 novel on screen feels like a breath of fresh air. Call Me by Your Name swathes its audience in dreamy scenery – a slow, intimate and peaceful Italian summer. It is nostalgic for young holiday nights, dancing, sharing cigarettes and midnight baths in the river. The story unfolds in a small town on the Italian Riviera, a place with a local bar but no bank and where everyone mounts a bike to ride down the sun-drenched country roads. The house of Elio’s family, an old elegant mansion, is surrounded with natural delights – its pace is set by the colourful breakfasts and long family dinners laid on the white garden table. Around it, daily conversations are made of successive exchanges in French, English, and Italian. Turquoise water gleams everywhere in the vicinity of this polyglot family and adds to the pure, voluptuous atmosphere. The second element of nostalgia, just as relatable, is bittersweet: the ending gives way to winter, as if those sweet summer days have been consumed, never to come back in this house or Elio’s life.
Oliver and Elio’s chemistry is spellbinding in its unadulterated richness and subtlety. Their delicate, adventurous and captivating intimacy is brought to the fore by a polished treatment of nature and time. Nothing feels too slow or rushed in the building of their six weeks of bonding, which evolves with equal wisdom and sensuality. The time the feeling takes to be expressed, declared and eventually accepted gives it a sheer taste of forbidden pleasure, as much for the leading duo as for the audience, nestled in a voyeuristic seat.
Guadagnino’s cinematography is stunning and full of surprises. Every detail catches a new interest: may it be the low-angle shots of Elio’s face or the pause on inert objects that give the scenery its aestival character – a bathing suit, a peach tree or a book near the river. There is something inherently humble and organic to Call Me by Your Name, perhaps a European touch of simplicity and nuance brought by the diverse filmmaking team. The Italian countryside is in turn sublimated by soft piano notes and Sufjan Stevens’ suave vocal timbre – while Elio’s passion for music adds to the virtuous tone of elation bestowed upon the hedonic setting.
Another highly enjoyable aspect of the film is that it overcomes any conceptualisation of gender and sexual orientation by its sole focus on the awakening desire between two beings in the most raw and carnal way. Call Me by Your Name does not lay its foundations on the inherent originality brought by its core theme. Beyond that, it transcends and exalts in the beauty of a love game ruled by sensuality, frustration, impulses, distance and indifference, regardless of who these signals originate from. By not placing gayness at the focal point of its story, the film reinforces the much-needed normalisation of queer fictions on screen and in culture.
Among a highly capable cast, the talent and mesmerizing performance of Timothée Chalamet must be noted. As Elio, the young actor skilfully embodies the 17-year-old boy in all his complexities, without ever falling into the one-sided caricature too often ascribed to teenage feelings. It is refreshing to witness a genuine, loving relationship between an adolescent and his parents on screen that isn’t tainted by a generic moodiness. Shifting between desire, coyness and fear, Elio’s intertwined emotions depict first love at a tumultuous age. An age where he loves in the best way he can: clumsily but with all his soul.
The film never makes a fuss out of itself, and at no point does it feel melodramatic. Guadagnino understands that humanity in stories, when presented with sincerity, is enough. A film does not need to overwhelm its dialogues with moral and existential lessons; Call Me by Your Name simply whispers words of tenderness in your ear. It accomplishes the underrated task of letting you see life when it’s as good as it can get, through the most lucent and empathetic lens. The message is a simple and hopeful one. It shows how sweet and enchanting any form of love can become – and that non-heterosexual romance does not need to be a story of hardship, even in the deeply conservative Italy of the 1980s.
‘Call Me by Your Name’ is on general release.
Featured image courtesy of museemagazine.com