His Summer of Love: Guadagnino Returns with Perceptive, Tender Sketch of First Love
Presented with an intoxicating combination of old fashioned reticence with bold and vibrant expression is Call Me by Your Name, the latest film from Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, based on a celebrated 2007 novel by Egyptian born scholar and author Andre Aciman. Recounting the coming-of-age and sexual awakening of a seventeen-year-old American-Italian Jewish youth over the course of one summer in 1983 northern Italy, Guadagnino’s adaptation is only concerned with the first portion of this narrative (whereas Aciman’s novel chronicles an ensuing twenty years). The painstaking insecurities of adolescence and the inevitable explorations of sexuality are arguably nothing new to cinematic renditions for heteronormative and queer cinema alike. But this gently provocative new film is an insightful portrait of not just the awkward ungainliness of first love, but the intensely defining nature of how its effects define identities and trajectories.
On the verge of adulthood, Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is about to embark on one of his last lazy summers at his parents’ seventeenth century villa they inherited a few years ago on the Italian Riviera. Wasting away his days reading, transcribing music, and vaguely flirting with his close friend Marzia (Esther Garrel), his idyll is interrupted when twenty-four-year-old American scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives as this year’s annual summer intern, on hand to assist his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor who specializes in Greco-Roman culture. As Oliver’s six weeks crawl by, the two young men discover a mutual desired for one another.
Guadagnino’s protracted set-up may often feel painstakingly languid. Chalamet (who has appeared in films by Jason Reitman and Christopher Nolan) is dwarfed in early sequences by the blond, bronzed Armie Hammer, whose gregariousness further alienates the introverted Elio, despite his interest and attraction. Awkwardly, his inability to convey his feelings leads to the next best thing when it comes to male bonding—bragging about sexual conquests with females. What Call Me by Your Name achieves here is a delicate balancing act with how it allows us to perceive Elio’s sexual relationship with not just Oliver, but Esther Garrel’s (daughter of Philippe, brother of Louis) Marzia. It’s clear Elio is trying to determine just what is he wants, what he may even be capable of (an interesting sequence late in the film shows Oliver biking away past one corner to be crossed by Marzia as she breezes in).
If one tires of the endless swimming sequences (for all the reading and eating and intellectual conversations, most of the film seemingly takes place besides a welcoming body of water), this also serves as the greatest metaphor for this period in Elio’s life, suggesting the fluidity of identity and sexuality allowed only for a certain amount of time before a decision must be made as regards a lover, an identity, an orientation settled upon for the sake of others (a shot during the winter set finale shows the lake frozen over, all its particles now cemented in one spot).
But Call Me by Your Name, as its title suggests, is as much about relinquishing your identity and body to another (powerfully administered in two distinct sequences). Upon Oliver’s arrival, there’s a faint comparison to Terence Stamp’s interloper in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968)—what has this sun kissed foreigner come to do to this wealth blessed mixed Italian family? The period setting in the 1980s also gives the narrative a more palpable sense regarding the need for discretion, and not just concerning sexuality. As Elio explains to Oliver after complimenting his Star of David necklace, his mother has conditioned him to believe his family are ‘discreet Jews.’ This need for such religious perspicacity is further highlighted by a brief aside where the young men ask an old woman in the countryside for a drink of water, only to see a prominent portrait of Il Duce hanging over the doorway.
A playful, piano heavy soundtrack adds to the film’s sense of longing and discovery, with DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010) and editor Walter Fasano (who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Guadagnino and James Ivory) contributing to the film’s summertime sadness vibe, a lush, san-dappled tension which eventually becomes an accelerated throb of sensuality accompanied by the kind of overpowering desire which doubles for pain.
Despite its sometimes moderate pacing, Guadagnino conjures several unforgettable moments, sometimes enhanced by carefully chosen soundtrack selections from the period, but perhaps most notably with a sexual moment involving a peach, which offers an impressive range of believable emotion, delving into territories not often explored in cinema between male lovers. Chalamet and Hammer, at first an oddly juxtaposed duo, settle quickly into a believably likeable rapport. The presence of Hammer ensures a healthy international interest from a variety of audiences, and the American born actor impresses with a layered performance. As Elio’s parents, Guadagnino acquired the formidable Amira Casar, looking exquisite as always, and American actor Michael Stuhlbarg. It’s the latter who sails away with the most poignant moment, a graceful conversation between father and son.
Reviewed on January 23rd at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Programme. 130 Min.