For a film so dependent on the withholding of desire and physical contact, Call Me By Your Name is incredibly tactile.
For a film so dependent on the withholding of desire and physical contact, Call Me By Your Name is incredibly tactile. Set in a villa in the Italian countryside one summer in the early ‘80s, it’s acutely attuned to the beads of sweat on sun-baked flesh, the matted hair of someone exhausted from dancing, warm air gently blowing through trees. The locations exude serenity, hot but never muggy, populated by enough people to provide companionship but not enough to be overcrowded; an edenic place where food seems to be gathered daily and love of all kinds is freely indulged.
All of that makes the vein of repression that runs through the film all the more affecting and powerful, suggesting a romance inhibited not by external factors but by anxiety and doubt. The film starts by introducing Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a teenage boy spending the summer in Crema with his parents, Lyle and Annella (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) in a lavish country house. Surrounded by books, the boy spends his time with his nose buried in various texts and with a composer’s notebook on which he scribbles musical arrangements. Elio’s peaceful summer is interrupted by the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an archaeological student who comes to work as an assistant for Lyle, a professor.
Oliver, an athletic American, cuts an immediate contrast with the sedate, European stylings of his residence and hosts. He’s loud and inadvertently rude, constantly leaving conversations with a curt “later,” and where Elio and his family eat slowly and with much conversation, he tends to hungrily gorge on eggs and leave the table as quickly as he sat down. Oliver specifically contrasts with Elio: flamboyant and extroverted where the boy is withdrawn, he immediately allures Elio’s young friends and, as soon becomes clear, Elio himself, converting the boy’s annoyance with Oliver’s brashness to halting, unsure but fierce attraction. Gradually, Oliver lets slip his own interest in Elio, and the two begin to dance around their feelings
Guadagnino’s direction, a paradoxical blend of lush opulence and naturalistic simplicity, is on full display in scenes of quasi-courtship. In the film’s most memorable scene, already in danger of being completely decontextualized as a meme, the camera sits at a low angle to film Oliver dancing, simply but confidently, to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” lighting him in soft shades of red and blues that overlap into a purple haze. The camera slowly pulls back to show Elio get on the dancefloor and shuffle around with his friends, but Hammer’s looming height ensures that Oliver remains the dominant focus even as he recedes into the background. The director favors shots that either remain static or move with smooth grace, which helps to prevent the romantic tension from spilling over into the psychological. Instead, the focus remains on the quivers on body language, the furtive glances and moments of hesitation. This holds true once things heat up between the pair, with the stillness of the camera and the villa’s surroundings suspending their romance in a bubble of time, secreted away and held intimately by the two men.
In spite of Guadagnino’s sedate camerawork, however, he nonetheless finds abstract illustrations of repressed desire. Taking a page from Straub-Huillet, the director uses the history of the Italian countryside, with its rich history of conflict, as a resonant backdrop for the central romance. Oliver and Lyle’s archaeology work leads to scenes of ancient Greco-Roman statues being uncovered, the worn figures of nude men a testament to a sexuality suppressed by Catholicism. In one standout scene, the Elio and Oliver circle a World War I memorial as Elio cautiously confesses his feelings, the giant statue attesting to an overwhelming tragedy and the reactionary wave it inspired.
These are highly charged insinuations under a placid façade, yet Call Me By Your Name remains curiously apolitical, to the point that a relationship between two young men in the ‘80s invites no scrutiny. The closest anyone comes to criticizing Elio and Oliver’s relationship is Elio’s occasional girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel), whose dejection stems only from her inability to understand the boy’s sudden lack of interest in her. The film arguably climaxes not with the central characters but with Lyle, who delivers a speech to Elio near the end that is among the most touching, earnest and kind speeches of its kind ever shot. Lyle’s speech hammers home the fundamental sweetness of this frequently pained expression of longing, suggesting that a world in which everyone’s romances would be subject only to their own internal anxieties and hang-ups would mark, for all the sorrow that will still cause, unbelievable progress.