(Caution: spoilers ahead.)
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is an undoubtedly beautiful film, not just for its serene vistas of the Italian countryside in which the story is set, but for a deeper, more artistic reason. Elio, the 17-year-old protagonist, falls in love with Oliver, the 24-year-old research assistant visiting Elio’s father, and the film captures the ecstasy and the ultimate doom of this romance with unblinking, piercing clarity.
Adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by Andre Aciman, the film is based on a screenplay written by James Ivory. The film is a mini-adaptation of the book, which is written in the first person and is narrated by Elio. In the film, we meet and leave Elio as a teenager while the book leaps 20 years into the future before it ends.
The spirit of the film and the book are similar – if anything, the film is a more melancholy product. Elio’s father is a professor of archaeology and hosts a graduate student every summer to help him with academic work. In the book, Oliver’s entry is marked as a moment of sexual awakening for Elio, whose infatuation is strongly undergirded by desire.
The film takes the same route, but absent the intense monologue of the book, lets the viewer believe that more gentle feelings are at play. The beauty of the setting and the solitariness it offers permit Elio and Oliver to nurse their romance with both passion and tenderness. Elio must gingerly express his feelings to Oliver, and Aciman is at his most effective in describing this circuitous reaching out. These scenes happen in deserted town squares or next to the shimmering river, and are adapted faithfully in the film.
Call Me By Your Name is about a gay romance, but Aciman showcases both men as bisexual. One of the central tensions of the story is Elio’s biding time with a girl as he comes to terms with his feelings for Oliver. Even at the peak of their romance, Elio can imagine a future with a wife and children, a fate that Oliver also follows. In the film, however, Ivory and Guadagnini hint at only Oliver’s matrimony, using it as the precursor to the film’s final shattering scene.
Timothee Chalamet plays Elio with an expertise that belies his age. He conveys the confusion of first love with touching accuracy, and his transformation into a lovesick boy is all the more powerful because it follows his elfish portrayal of Elio. As an actor, he makes great use of his body, conveying sprite-like energy one moment, profound sadness in another, letting his limbs glide smoothly or holding them tensely as the situation demands.
Oliver is played by Armie Hammer, whose handsomeness plays some part in imagining the object of Elio’s affection. With his classic good looks and deep voice, his academic sincerity outflanked ultimately by complete abandon, Hammer comes the closest to how Aciman describes any character in the book.
For all that, though, Call Me By Your Name can be too precious. Perhaps the film cannot be blamed for this, since even the book emits an aura of unquenchable longing. I found Elio’s age troublesome, not necessarily because he is not yet an adult, but because he is not ready to handle the weight of the experience. The book and the film explore desire in great, sometimes gratuitous detail, presenting it as a force that cannot be resisted, but entirely leave the question of its aftermath hanging.
The 2016 movie Moonlight also featured a protagonist whose gayness is a burden that he carries for long years, never letting in the freedom to unshackle himself. But Chiron’s reality in Moonlight is different from Elio’s, governed as it is by race and poverty. For a condition that is deeply interior, his situation is marked ultimately by his external circumstances and his inability to close the gap between the two.
This is not nearly so in Elio’s case. His hesitations emerge not from shame, but from the sheer force of anticipation. Long passages in the book describe the time he spends by himself, imagining closeness with Oliver. Aciman portrays him as a creature of desire – and not just sexual desire. He will pursue any feeling, any device that brings him pleasure. An only child, he leads a mostly solitary existence. The environment at home, with books and talk of art, is as far from Chiron’s as the lives of two gay men can be.
This feeling is heightened in the movie by the aftermath of the sun-dappled summer of Elio and Oliver’s romance. When Oliver leaves, Elio goes through hell. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) sits him down and tells him he knew what went on between them. It is a supremely mature conversation, bereft of any reproach. Indeed, it is a model for how to approach the messy subject of love and loss with your children.
But it also feels delayed and somewhat tone-deaf. We see in Chalamet’s eyes a well of tears perpetually ready to spill over. It’s the sort of sadness that will leave a lasting imprint, and I wished the father was more fatherly than friendly, offering more than words, enticing as they are. If he knew what was going on, might it not have been better to intervene? To call off Oliver’s internship? Or send Elio away?
In most respects, Call Me By Your Name is a great film. Chalamet’s performance will deservedly win him many gongs in the coming awards season. But watching the film, one leaves with the impression that, even as it magically celebrates a certain way of life, a certain melancholy, it does not meet the burden of truth. Such magnanimity of feeling suits art perhaps, but real life, were it so exquisite, would be unbearable.