There are those rare films that suddenly make a very cold Berlinale day feel warm by adding a different colour to life, like a filter on an old polaroid picture. Call Me by Your Name, which is now being shown in Berlin after its premiere at Sundance, is one of them. The film, which is adapted from André Acimans novel of the same title, is set in a small town “somewhere in Italy in 1983,” where the intellectual family of seventeen-year-old Elio have their summer vacation house, and where Elio is destined to fall, ever so gently, into a painfully exquisite love affair.
We arrive in this Italian summer haven where the peaches are ripe and someone is always making pasta, together with the American student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), who will be the summer assistant of Elio’s father, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeologist. After a few casual Heidegger quotes and classical music interludes it soon becomes apparent that Oliver is visiting the summer house of one of the most perfect, casually intellectual, liberal families ever to grace the big screen.
As the minutes fly by, it becomes seemingly impossible not to fall for each of the characters, and the desperate desire to step into the movie to become a part of this family’s cosmos becomes almost unbearable. You end up yearning to read the newspaper with them, sit at the table during one of their endless summer night patio dinners, listen to Elio playing piano or become part of a discussion about the semantics of the word ‘apricot’ in the morning.
Luca Gudagnino creates a world in which reading books and simply being, is enough. By emphasising the smallest details such as Oliver failing to crack an egg at the breakfast table, he gives everything meaning without making it too obviously ‘meaningful.’ As a director he displays a kindness towards the characters reminiscent of the carefully observant camera-style of Richard Linklater in Boyhood. Consequently, Gudagnino shows us that it is the ordinary things that matter and that we have to allow ourselves to take the time to notice them, like the old woman snapping peas in front of a house when the boys ask for a glass of water on the way to the lake.
The importance of paying attention to the smallest details is pronounced by the graceful foundation of Elio and Olivers’ characters. Oliver is the classic American. When he leaves he always randomly and nonchalantly throws a ‘later’ into the conversation, which becomes a running gag over the course of the film. In a sense this ‘later’ is the most fitting personification of Oliver (an outstanding performance by Armie Hammer): with his Ryan Gosling-esque cockiness he implies in his ‘later’ a bittersweet promise that persistently lingers in the air throughout the film.
Elio (an incredibly sensitive portrait by Timothée Chalamet) is quite the opposite of the loud, self-aware Oliver. He doesn’t quite know who he is or what he wants yet. Reading books and writing music, carefully observing the actions around him, Elio looks like a boy who could have fallen straight out of a song written by The Cure. So when Oliver asks him in their first encounter what he’s doing the whole summer Elio’s answer is simple, yet it carries a fierce, dramatic undertone, he replies: “waiting for the summer to end.” This indicates that deep down, Elio already has an idea of what this could mean, however, as with all great love stories, the rules of attraction are not that simple, or surmisable in just one sentence.
Clearly cherishing his ensemble, Luca Guadagnino establishes a level of carefully orchestrated intimacy in the relationships between his characters which makes their care-free existence all the more enticing. Consequently, Call Me by Your Name encourages a deep-seated desire for the internet to collapse so that we can all go back to reading books and become sensual, analogue beings, dancing to ’80s music, instead of just mindlessly swiping left and right.
Like his last film, A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino excels in the creation of cinematic moments so beautiful and so rich that you want to frame and conserve them forever. However, where the beauty of certain scenes felt a bit forced in A Bigger Splash, in Call Me by Your Name Guadagnino manages to create an incredible level of lightheartedness which lifts the film to heights rarely found in modern cinema and which linger with you well after the credits roll. At its best, Call Me by Your Name has a casual effortlessness that hardly feels constructed at all. These scenes never seem to be staged or orchestrated, they simply happen naturally and poignantly, like when Oliver and Elio ride their bikes or spend some time at the pool together.
Finding an endearing rhythm between its visual language and its accompanying soundtrack, Call Me by Your Name employs a smart variety of songs including classical tunes, nostalgic ’80s hits and two compositions created especially for the film by Sufjan Stevens. The importance of the music was explained by Guadagnino at the Berlinale press conference:
“When we were working on the script, we asked ourselves how we could encompass the voice of the book into the cinematic language and we were playing with the idea to use a third person narrator but this didn’t feel quite right. We then decided to use the music as a commentator of Elio’s character and Sufjan Stevens’ approach to emotion is unsentimental and really raw.“
The skill to which he deftly applies musical accompaniment to his film is encapsulated within the use of the iconic track Love My Way by The Psychedelic Furs. Guadagnino’s use of the track brings to life a feeling reminiscent of the moment when you received your first carefully arranged mixtape from someone who really meant something to you, a feeling perhaps long forgotten.
A love letter to time and to letting things flow at their own tempo, Guadagnino gives Elio and Oliver the space to find each other without rushing them or assigning them to any queer genre film tick boxes. Yes, the first kiss between the characters is clumsy but we empathise with it, understanding that falling for someone and revealing yourself can be a hellishly awkward experience. There is a subtle beauty in letting two people find each other without forcing it. Certainly, the most striking element in the development of these two characters is how Guadagnino allows them to grow and become more aware of themselves, while slowly leading them to each other completely naturally.
This subtlety is further reinforced by the gaze of the camera which is always an accomplice of the two leading males. The camera is on the boys side, something which becomes glaringly obvious in the more intimate scenes in which Elio and Oliver have sex and Guadagnino makes the smart and conscious decision not to show too much – leaving the audience with their own ideas and defining Elio and Oliver’s intimacy as something sacred.
Although the film clearly focuses on the budding romance between Elio and Oliver, the two are supported by a tremendous cast including Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Elio’s father with an intellectual kindness that resembles Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. He observes without comment, yet you can see that he knows exactly what’s going on at any given moment. This gives his character an underlying grace, and fashions him into a model liberal father.
Indeed, in one of the last scenes in the movie in which he explains during a midnight conversation with Elio why it is always worth falling in love, his performance has the potential to equal Robin Williams’ desk-monologue in Dead Poets. It is this scene that gives Elio the agency to be who he is without having to ‘come out’ and brings home the message that in the end, feelings are not about being gay or straight, they’re about allowing yourself to have compassion for someone else and to make yourself vulnerable.
A film that makes you yearn for a love that will hurt you as much as it hurts Elio, Call Me by Your Name teaches us that there is a deep meaning in the world that’s worth being open to. It also makes it impossible to hear someone say ‘later’ and not associate it with the sweet scent of endless possibility which comes with a great love that didn’t need to last forever to be real; Call Me by Your Name gently teaches us that a moment or a summer is enough and that time and romance are entirely relative.