Call Me by Your Name (2017)
The ‘New Queer Cinema’ of the 1980s transitioned the depiction of gay people from victims to ordinary people with ordinary romantic relationships. In the following decades, gay love films became less and less transgressive as most modern societies evolved through cycles of tolerance to acceptance to celebration of love without gender boundaries. The beautiful coming-of-age love story Call Me by Your Name (2017) is an outstanding example of this proud line of film culture transformation.
It tells a simple tale of a 1983 summer holiday in the charming village of Lombardy in Northern Italy. Elio (Timothée Shalamet) is a nerdy 17-year old holidaying with his Jewish family in their picturesque villa amongst luscious vineyard landscapes. Each year his archaeology professor father takes on a doctoral student to assist research. Adonis-like 24-year old Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives and is immediately popular with the parents and local girls. Elio is struck by his rugged good looks but resentful of his American confidence and apparent disinterest in Elio’s youthful attention. Almost in slow motion, Elio and Oliver begin to advance on each other, from tiny incremental moments like a pat on the back or accidental body contact to full frontal gazes that say so much without a word. The older Oliver knows himself and holds back, while the brashly unaware Elio is emotionally overwhelmed by what is stirred within. Inevitably they become lovers, summer ends, and pain begins.
This gentle narrative arc feels as uneventful as a languid lazy holiday lying around a sun-drenched rock pool. While the plot advances glacially, we don’t want it any faster. The filming style, sensual score, and visual pleasures of Italianate village life are in symphonic harmony with the eternal rituals of young love. To the extent that there is any dramatic tension at all it is in the creation of secret moments where the lovers connect; the shadow of illicit relations is ever present. A door slightly open in the background is the only cinematic device needed for the threat of discovery. Armie Hammer and Timothée Shalamet deliver exquisite performances and resonate with the imagery of ancient sculptural forms that elevate the body beautiful to the realm of high art. Drenched in eroticism and the lyrical yearnings of sexual awakening, the film achieves a universal story disconnected from the stereotypes of time, place, and gender.
Even a film as visually delightful and emotionally engaging as this is not free of criticism. A powerful but too brief monologue about truth to one’s self by Elio’s father deserved deeper exploration. At two and a quarter hours the film is overconfident that we share the director’s self-indulgent urge to linger. There are several hinge points in the final chapter where the credits could have rolled but instead opened another scene that felt anti-climactic; yet when they finally do roll it leaves you with a feeling of having had a remarkable cinematic experience.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Stars: Armie Hammer, Timothée Shalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg