This movie makes you feel so connected with the characters and the storyline, that it almost feels like you were living in it with the characters. One of those rare occasions when the movie outshines the book. The 2+ hour-long film makes us feel young, in love, uncomfortable, wise, heartbroken and peaceful through its run-time. Call Me By Your Name is a revelation in itself as it takes you back to your first love whilst staying connected to the characters and their story.
The main character and our protagonist for all intents and purposes is the 17 year old, intellectually brilliant, Elio Perlman who falls in love with the 24 year old Oliver over the course of the Summer of 1983. Since the story is based just around the time of the outbreak of AIDS, homosexuality was at that time condemned and closeted. But what CMBYN does is while it subtly acknowledges the reality of the situation and the appropriate social behaviour that comes with it, it chooses not to delve on the struggles of coming out or of accepting your sexual orientation. It asks us to look beyond it. And it succeeds in this attempt so majestically. Elio and Oliver could have been an Elio and Olivia and the impact of the movie would still remain the same for me. It is just incidental to the story line that the characters are gay, not central to it. It would therefore not be too wrong for me to speculate that that is why Luca Guadagnino cast two straight men to play the central characters and their love story.
When Oliver comes to stay with the Perlman family, with his American aura and confidence, Elio does not know what to expect from his house guest of “six long” weeks. While he is immediately fascinated by Oliver, he maintains distance from him, although not so much voluntarily as out of feeling dismissed and he considers Oliver to be rude, perhaps for his innate Americanness.
What the movie does so well is engage the audience by challenging us to read between the lines, going along with the theme of self-discovery by letting the actors convey their feelings through their body language and their facial expressions rather than forceful dialogues. Incidentally, in the dance scene when Elio looks from afar at Oliver dancing, his expression gives away his desire to join him, and the effort required to stop himself from doing so. In order to pry a reaction out of Oliver, he conversationally mentions how he almost had sex with Marzia after the party. And at this point into the movie, there is no outright mention of Elio’s intensity of emotions for Oliver. But for an astute viewer, there are enough hints foreshadowing the inevitable that make his reactions very natural and maybe even expected instead of forced. For example, there is a scene where the Perlman family are hosting a dinner and Oliver is out somewhere and you can see how agitated Elio is the whole time. This conveys the confusion and extent of his feelings for Oliver without ever really saying anything. Guadagnino counts on the audience reminiscing about their own first loves to be able to pick on the subtle notes he leaves in his shots through the character portrayals by the Chalamet & Hammer.
For a largely intimate and sensual movie, the pivotal moment of Elio & Oliver’s romantic relationship takes place with the characters being unusually far away from each other physically by literally placing a huge obstacle between the two. Elio, no longer trying to either ignore, or hide away from his feelings, decides “it’s better to speak rather than to die”. Instead of planning his big reveal, he lets the confession out in a conversational way, while consciously creating more distance from Oliver and turning on him while confessing. Again, rather than say the obvious, Guadagnino lets the audience interpret the conversation by reading between the lines as Elio simply says “You know what things”. With it, they start their romantic journey, albeit a little too delayed.
Aside from the beautiful representation of a rather enviable summer with beautiful sets and locations, the film is most popular for how it plays out the uncomfortable scenes. Like when Elio dives his head under Oliver’s unwashed swimming trunks to take in his scent and flavour. Or, who can forget, the infamous peach scene! In such moments, the camera does not cut the scene off as is typical, but paradoxically gives us wider shots to allow the audience to gather more information. It gives us time to revel in the discomfort. To absorb it, just like every other feeling. To not cut away from it.
By Elio’s own admission, there isn’t much to do except read books, transcribe music, swim at the river, go out at night and wait for summer to end. So I will agree that the pace of the movie is on the slow side. There are long shots of them cycling away from the camera with no dialogue, no close ups, no obvious messages except to convey that time is passing by. But such scenes work because psychologically, they keep reminding us that Oliver is here for just 6 weeks. That time is not on their side. It makes us, as an audience, feel an urgency for the characters whilst also holding on to the shared moments between them with for lack of a better word, more respect. Another unusual pattern in the movie is allowing the sound of nearby objects to disturb the dialogues rather than dulling them or fading them out in the post production of the film. There are scenes when the actors have to speak over the sounds of cars passing by or birds chirping or water flowing. But I believe it is these very aspects that give the movie a tangible feel. Like we were right there in those moments with the characters. It very subtly keeps letting the audience become a larger part of the experience. As if the audience also has their own role to play for the movie, like a hidden but omnipresent character.
When a movie is so limited in its characters and storyline, it is vital that the plot, whilst being simple, does not become uneventful. That the actors portraying the characters are able to give them complexity and stir them to life. Timothée Chalamet’s performance in the movie is exceptional. He embodies the awkwardness, embarrassment, humility, sincerity, intoxication and finally, heartbreak, that his character has to suffer. During no point of his performance does anything feel unbelievable as an audience. He is able to transport you to his world and his life and you feel his heart-break and his joy and you live it with him rather than just watching them happen to him. There is no bigger praise for an actor than that they make you feel what they are feeling through their performance. Similarly, Armie Hammer perfectly showcases Oliver’s confidence, charisma and caution. He is able to make himself look flawless when the moment calls for it and vulnerable when the moment calls for that.
One supporting role that stands out in the movie is that of Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio’s father for a specific scene towards the end of the movie when for possibly the first time, there is a complete reliance of dialogue as the sole means of conveying a plot point. The entire message of the movie is tied up together during the father-son exchange that happens after Oliver has left for the States. When summer has ended. In an attempt to reach out to his son, Stuhlbarg’s character pleads with an evasive Elio, in a very Robbie Williams kind of way, to feel his feelings, rather than try to kill them in order to avoid pain. To appreciate the joy for what it was and endure the pain as a part of it. Actually, the scene is just too good to be paraphrased. The message is too important to be filtered down.
He says “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing, so as not to feel anything, what a waste! Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart’s worn out and as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there is sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it. And with it, the joy you felt.”
And we are left speechless, reflective of the immensity of his words as we see Elio look into the fireplace teary-eyed, basking in his emotions. Appreciating the joy AND accepting the pain. Taking in all there is to be absorbed and not cutting away from it. To confront your feelings, not numb them. To speak rather than to die…