Call Me by Your Name: an emotionally charged love affair taut with inner tensions

Luca Guadagnino is an intensely sensual director, but he knows how to undercut a moment.

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Most love stories require an impediment against which the central romance can be tested. I love you but we’re married to other people (Brief Encounter). I love you but you’re dying (Love Story), or dead (Ghost). I love you but I’m a diplomat’s wife and you’re a chimpanzee (Max Mon Amour).

What’s peculiar about Call Me by Your Name is the lack of any external resistance to the gay love affair at the heart of the story. No homophobia, no disapproving peers or parents. The film, adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel, is set in northern Italy in 1983, just before fears about HIV and Aids would have impinged on these characters’ lives. It’s equally important that this is an era that predates mobile phones. No one can express their feelings with a winking cartoon face or an upturned aubergine. It has to be done for real.

The achievement of the director Luca Guadagnino is to create in the absence of any obvious opposition a picture that is still taut with inner tensions. It’s summertime and the living is easy. Against the backdrop of unhurried life at a villa in Lombardy, the emotions of the 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) jangle and thrum like guitar strings as he becomes gradually besotted with Oliver (Armie Hammer), his professor father’s 24-year-old research assistant, who is staying with the family for six weeks.

Two things snag his interest. The first is the Star of David that Oliver wears, nestling in his chest hair. (Elio is also Jewish, though his mother describes the family as “Jews of discretion”.) The second is Oliver’s easy physicality. Elio is startled to receive a shoulder massage from him while watching a volleyball game. Squirming free, he is hauled back by the older man, who then enlists a nearby teenage girl to continue the massage. It’s the first in a series of gestures that involve puppetry of some description. The next occurs when Elio clocks Oliver’s attraction to a local woman and tries to play matchmaker between them, much to Oliver’s displeasure. Tellingly, when they make up, it is through another act of puppeteering: Oliver extends the hand of friendship to Elio, only it isn’t his own hand but the one attached to a sculpted, disembodied arm. The film charts the dismantling of their defences as they move beyond preening and proxies towards an ideal of intimacy.

With a handful of exceptions, the film is told from Elio’s heightened, hormonal perspective. At the sound of a bicycle bell, the camera might pan round distractedly to see where it is coming from. The sudden cut when Oliver rolls off the side of the pool and into the water mimics Elio’s electrified jumpiness. Chalamet’s performance is enchantingly physical, even feline. He keeps breaking out into unselfconscious dance moves – a soft-shoe shuffle or a prance like a cartoon burglar’s tiptoed prowl. A pounding piano reproduces Elio’s desires in musical form and the reflective new songs by Sufjan Stevens introduce the possibility that he is looking back on all this from middle age.

It’s an idea that Guadagnino pursues near the end of the film, when Oliver is watching Elio sleep. He swivels his head in response to a noise that is audible to us also, but turns out to be the sound of a train drawing into a station the following morning. Guadagnino (a former film critic and the director of I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) will know that his countryman Sergio Leone used a ringing telephone to tie together a montage spanning several different time periods in Once Upon a Time in America. The effect here strikes the same note of disorienting melancholy, as though the characters were waking from dreams wreathed in memories.

Guadagnino is an intensely sensual director, almost parodically so, but he knows how to undercut a moment so that its emotional charge is deferred. When Oliver and Elio finally broach the subject of their mutual attraction, they are shown in a wide shot, separated from one another by a statue commemorating the Battle of the Piave River and almost drowned out by the hydraulic hiss of an approaching bus. Anyone would think the driver didn’t know that two men were confessing their love for one another and changing the course of their lives. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

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