The Startling Reality of First Love
“Is it better to speak or die?” is the pressing question Luca Guadagnino’s latest feature proposes to untangle. Taking place in the height of Summer of 1983 in a small idyllic villa in Northern Italy, the film sets off with the arrival of a buff blonde-haired American grad student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), invited to work under the supervision of an American professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) for six weeks. From the first moment the professor’s son, Elio (Thimothée Chalamet), lays eyes on him, Oliver’s corporeal stature triggers the aesthetically infused education the 17 year-old seems to have been an object of. Gradually, with an emphasis on summertime’s ephemerality, a romantic bond springs between the two.
In this – according to the filmmaker himself – concluding act to Guadagnino’s trilogy of Desire – I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015) the other two -, the choice of borrowing from Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptaméron confronts the manner with which the film speaks for love’s non-verbality very early on, kindling emotion in the nostalgic anticipation the flush of first love is shaped by. Based on the novel by André Aciman and adapted for the screen by James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name (2017) is, as the title suggests, asking for contact. And not just within the conventional sentimental relay of yearning in film. In the development of its intrinsic love story, while Elio pines for Oliver, unable to get his feelings across, and Oliver uses a sense of tact to entice him, a needle is threaded between the duality of the form of the human flesh and the non-tactile human experience of affect. It becomes very clear very soon how much this is not just a love story; there is a rejection of the overtly oppressive queer coming-of-age discourse we can now afford to turn our noses up at. These characters are waiting to manifest the shape of their relationship to each other, or so a curvaceous bronze figure fished out of the sea appears to be pointing at.
Reminiscent of Eric Rohmer’s treatment of the suspension of time during summer days, and evenings that boil over with sensuality, the film finds Guadagnino giving in to a freer treatment of the image, beautifully balanced by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (As Mil e Uma Noites, Miguel Gomes, 2015) in Renoir-like golden shades. In comparison with the filmmaker’s previous usage of lavish formal elements in his films – the neo-baroque austere framing of I am Love a clear example of that – Call Me By Your Name is bluntly fluid, its narrative’s simplicity giving itself completely to the bleached colouring of the reverie the film is lodged into. There, in its seemingly present account of a sublimated sensorial story of Epicurean surrender, the filmmaker gifts the audience with breathing spaces which eventually open themselves to an awareness that the importance of details is to be the paradigm for the characters’ testament of the memory of that Summer. Moments such as the one where Elio contemplates a fish’s mouth still open, its body squirming, or of both characters asking for a glass of water, would otherwise feel inadequate.
As a whole, the film’s intense preoccupation with the paradoxes that underlie its conception of character is sure-footed in how much Guadagnino is eager to observe people at their rawest, when they’re least aware of themselves. With the help of the swaddled empathy that Ivory’s screenplay transpires, and the astounding cast, thoroughly illuminating the endearing quality of the film’s unconventionalities, Call Me By Your Name fully commits to being a retelling of an instance in one’s everyday life where nothing seems to happen and of course, where everything does. Little by little, the audience will discover it as the tale of a boy learning how to be open to love rather than actually struggling with the concept – Elio’s confirmation of affection appearing in the form of the Star of David necklace he had stopped wearing is key. Whether or not that factor is at all connected to how the theme of forbidden love is to be approached in these characters’ worlds, the film still finds its stance when it speaks loudly of unfulfilled belonging. A case in point is Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio’s French friend, who ends up suffering the misfortune of falling in love with him despite knowing he yearns for someone else, perhaps the most affected of characters by the desire that Guadagnino refers to as being at the heart of his latest work.
“Friends?”, she asks.
“For life?”, he apologises.
“For life.”, she says.
Throughout, the filmmaker tempts us to look closer at what we are being presented with, the relationship between Marzia and Elio for one, and yet he himself looks away by incorporating panoramic shots in Oliver and Elio’s first sexual encounter. At the end, the theme of desire finds itself projected into the screening room, either provoked by its congruity with the soaring melancholic soundtrack or by the sensual mood that permeates and puts the viewer under a spell. Perhaps that is why just as the credits run with Elio still present on screen, it feels urgent to go back to the question at Call Me By Your Name’s centre. You will always want what you know you will not possess. It is then better to speak. And the film knows Elio will, from that point forward.