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Sunday, December 10, 2017
Luca Guadagino | Call Me by Your Name
AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER
by Douglas Messerli
James Ivory (screenplay, based on a fiction by André Aciman), Luca Guadagino (director) Call Me by Your Name / 2017
Certainly the most romantic film in the least romantic year of my memory, 2017, was Luca Guadagnino’s gay love story, Call Me By Your Name. Yet this gay-centered film was not quite like any other coming of age films. Unlike many a “coming-out” tale, the young 17-year-old figure upon which this work centers, Elio Perlman (the absolutely stunning young actor Timothée Chalamet), is not only already “seeing” girls near the Lombardy villa in which he lives with his intellectual-inclined family, but having sex with the local Marzia (Esther Garrel). Yet in the summer of 1983, something clicks that sends him into a kind of spin—and we never quite know whether it is a permanent or only temporary shift.
His sudden transition into sexual change and a kind of early sexual maturity has to do with the sudden introduction into his quiet family life of one of his father’s brilliant students, Oliver (the always handsome Armie Hammer). Oliver suddenly appears, usurping for six weeks the boy’s own bedroom, like one of the bronzed gods out of his father’s anthropological studies. The moment the two lock eyes on one another, fireworks nearly go off.
Yet the attraction between the two is slow in developing in this overly languid film, scripted by the long important writer-director James Ivory (based on a fiction by André Aciman (who also plays a minor figure in the film). Despite their immediate lust for one another, both are more than precocious figures, Oliver seemingly knowing, besides his Greek and Roman history, the etymology of the languages, and even daring to contradict his professor’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) observations about root words. For his part, Elio is a bookish genius, who not only skillfully plays the piano (in real life as well as on screen), and spouts facts about the local monuments that one could hardly imagine a 17-year old could have ever been aware—in 1983, one must remember, there were no computers and cell-phones to distract young intelligence—and who, moreover, speaks fluent Italian, English, and French (which the real-life actor does as well). In many ways the two were destined to come together intellectually if not physically.
Understandably, the 30-some Oliver is cautious around this genius boy, not wanting to introduce him into a sexual event which might harm him or simply confuse his own sexuality. And then, as we discover at film’s end, Oliver, has had a long relationship with a woman back home in the good ole USA, and perhaps he is not quite sure of his sexual identification. Oddly, and quite wonderfully, the film recognizes the sexual fluidity of most of the human race, and doesn’t judge their sudden attraction. But Oliver’s clear moral resistance also demonstrates his caring, and perhaps already his love and admiration for the younger boy.
Much of the film, accordingly spends its energy on the flirtatious encounters between the two, subtle messages to one other, such as Oliver’s hand placed just perhaps a few too many moments on Elio’s arm, gentle looks of furtive attraction, which remind one very much of Ivory’s Forester recreation, Maurice, and, most importantly long bicycle trips with one another into the countryside, along with painful attempts by Oliver to make clear that he might also be available to local women.
If all of this, at first, frustrates Elio, particularly Oliver’s Americanized phrase suggesting his stand-offish position, “Later,” a signature of moving on while postponing any action. And the young boy cannot seemingly abide the new intruder. But both the elder and the audience know better, as the kid begins to develop a near fetishistic relationship with the man with whom he must share a bathroom, sneaking into his room to smell his shirt and swimming suit. And, gradually, as the two continually circle around one another, and with the help of a tale his mother reads him from the German about a prince who could bring himself to speak of his love for a princess, Elio elliptically expresses his feelings to Oliver, who briefly responds with a kiss or two, but suggests that since they have done nothing to consummate their desires, they should go no further, particularly to protect his young friend.
Fortunately, for both, the standoff finally comes to an end when Oliver invites the boy into his bedroom late at night, where the two consummate their absolute passion for one another with an emotional release with which anyone who has ever fallen in love can only sympathize.
The previous tensions might have almost been unbearable, and still, in part, are, were it not for set designer Violante Visconti di Modrone’s total attention to details, the books, kitchen, dining room, and hearth-lit scenes that give this world it’s sensuality, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s ability to capture the lazy sunlit world of Crema and other villages in Lombardy. The scenery and internal spaces are even more romantic perhaps that the plot of the film, and give Guadagnino’s work a kind of solidity which the furtive characters cannot. It almost asks, “How can people not fall in love in such a loveable world?”
Not that, once these two have finally been able to come together, there isn’t plenty of hot romance as both boy and man literally jump out of their pants to express the ecstasy they feel about one another’s bodies and emotional expressions. Why couldn’t we have come together earlier, Elio implores, knowing that soon his lover will have to return to the US. It’s the plea of every lover in every sensitive portrayal of love. Fortunately, Elio’s parents, who both are clearly aware of their son’s new infatuation and are totally accepting of it, suggest that the two of them go together for a couple of weeks to a northern town where Oliver plans to do research.
We suspect that Oliver finds little time for his research, given their near-idyllic and, frankly, soap-opera add-like rush through the villages and local mountains, where they kiss and hug, and dance through the hills and streets with complete abandonment. We forgive them and even the director for their sentimentality, for they will never again have the opportunity of that rush of love again.
And that is the true tragic lesson of this beautiful film. As Oliver stoically takes the train to go off from his very special summer, the young Elio attempting the best he possibly can to keep from utterly breaking-down we are reminded of all those films that sent lovers off in different directions—or, at least, proposed to do so: Casablanca, Love in the Afternoon (even though, at the very last moment, Hepburn is swept up into her lover’s arms), or even Deborah Kerr and Carey Grant in An Affair to Remember (does it matter that she might have left their magic voyage in a taxi or subway instead?). The seemingly balanced and wiser-than-his-years Elio, tearfully phones up his mother to come take him home. After my first love revealed he had made a choice to begin a relationship with another, I did the very same thing, standing in a no-longer existent phone booth on a New York street to call my parents for a plane ticket to take me home.
The most profound moment of this sad romance is when Elio’s father invites him to sit beside him and attempts to explain that instead of trying to forget his first-love experience, tamping it down to something regrettable, that he should celebrate the special love that each had shared with one another, that life itself would slowly offer choices that would steal away those very joys that his son had so wonderfully experienced. Keep those memories close, he suggests, as he hints that he too might have gone through such a transitional love, but chose instead to keep it at a distance, to move away from it, without ever re-discovering the joys it might have provided him. Such openness of heart and perception is worth every somewhat silly movie of this sort of April-August romance, which could be described of my potential relationship as well.
A telephone call from Oliver, apparently months later, reveals to Elio that his lover will be married by the next Spring. If today that might have seemed a bit equivocal (married to whom, a man or a woman?), we know that in 1983 it was a woman to whom Oliver was now committing himself. But as painful as that news has been, Elio has already come to perceive that their relationship was over. Those few halcyon days would never exist again, no matter if he will find another woman or man to love. The long take at the end of this quite lovely film, with the camera directly placed facing the quite brilliant Timothée Chalamet, embraces his beautiful face as tears gradually well-up in his eyes and fall gradually over his chiseled cheeks, a fire crackling before him like an inferno of new possibilities or perhaps intense pains of suffering. We cannot know which. First loves merely introduce us to the rest of our sexual lives.
Los Angeles, December 10, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).