“By the time you’re thirty, your heart gives out. And each time it gets harder to start with someone new… I’ve never come close to what you two had–have.” This emotional gist of a pep talk from Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), empathetic archaeological professor and father to Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), at the end of their summer spent in the countryside of Crema corroborates what has long been suspected by anyone whose heart has ever been rent in two by the limitations of love. In essence, you can only feel this level of intensity but once in a lifetime–and even at that, you’re among the lucky ones, as so many don’t even get to experience the emotion at all. Which often begs the question: is it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all? Depends on how fragile you are, one supposes.
The third in his Desire trilogy, following I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino’s final installment is the most rife with yearning of all. Adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman, screenwriter James Ivory remains largely faithful to the source material, save for the part where the book also shows the two reuniting twice over the course of fifteen and twenty years, respectively. And as we open on “Somewhere in Northern Italy, 1983,” Elio’s resentment about having to give up his room to yet another one of his father’s doctorate students, Oliver (Armie Hammer), for the summer is mitigated by the sight of him as he approaches the house. Musing to his friend and occasional love interest, Marzia (Esther Garrel), that he should go downstairs, the eagerness that washes over him can’t yet be explained, but it soon will be.
Playing “the good host” (as Oliver mockingly calls him) from the outset, it’s evident from the very beginning that there’s a thinly suppressed attraction building. From the “playful” touches to the married couple bickering, Oliver and Elio form a fast bond. One that Elio must acknowledge to himself is more than friendship one night while out dancing. Seeing him rub up against another girl, the jealousy within him burns with more force than the cigarette he’s smoking. And as the tempo suddenly changes with “Love My Way” by Thompson Twins (remember, it’s 1983), much to the excitement of two girls who jump up with elation over the DJ’s sonic decision, Elio decides to join Oliver on the dance floor. And, when taking into account the lyrics of the song, it makes perfect sense that it becomes very much “theirs” as the narrative progresses. Because yes, one can picture both of their internal monologues being, “I follow where my mind goes, they’d put us on a railroad/They’d dearly make us pay for laughing in their faces and making it our way/There’s emptiness behind their eyes, there’s dust in all their hearts/They just want to steal us all and take us all apart.” But that isn’t going to happen to Oliver and Elio, not once they finally get past the hurdle of yielding to their desires.
Lying side by side in the sun-soaked grass toward the middle of Oliver’s sojourn, Elio seems to forget himself, remarking, “I love this.” Oliver, in his dumb American sort of way, asks, “What?” Elio vaguely replies, “Everything.” Oliver corrects, “You mean us?” While many of the exchanges between Elio and Oliver can feel uncomfortable in their tenderness, it’s precisely because the viewer is witnessing something tantamount to spying on the blooming of a first love–that’s how authentic the re-creation of this true romance is. So naturally, it’s going to be laden with awkwardness, cautious glances and confessions and, finally, sex without abandon once the veneer of coyness has been shattered.
One night as Elio’s mother, Annella (Amira Casar), reads from a sixteenth-century French romance (for some reason in German) to Elio and his father (they’re a very close-knit family, in case you couldn’t surmise), the narrative of the knight who has formed a friendship with a princess hits too close to home. For the knight’s feelings have transmuted into something more, making him wonder: “Is it better to speak or to die?” Suffer the embarrassment of rejection, or live always in wonder of what might have been. Elio’s parents, very aware of what’s going on, tell him that it’s better to speak. And so, Elio finally does one day on a routine bike ride with Oliver into town. Taking the opportunity to confess his true feelings for Oliver after he pays him the compliment, “Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver answers, “I don’t know about any of the things that matter.” Oliver presses, “What things that matter?” Lowering his voice slightly, Elio states, “You know what things” (again, a case in point of wanting to cringe, but nonetheless earnest in its depiction).
A man with something of an issue with self-control once the floodgates have been opened, this much is made evident when Oliver devours his morning egg and is encouraged to have another by Elio’s mother, admitting, “I know myself. If I have a second, I’m gonna have a third, and then a fourth, and then you’ll just have to roll me out of here.” So it goes with Elio himself–once he’s drank from the well of Elio’s disclosures and affections.
So their tryst hits both of them with the force of an oncoming train. And throughout the narrative, the details that serve as the backdrop are a testament to Guadagnino’s care for the story. From the errant flies that always seem to be buzzing about (a real problem during an Italian summer) to the none too subtle references to the derivation of the word “albicocca” (the Italian word for “apricot” that makes any American simper), Call Me By Your Name is the very definition of rich. Perhaps because Guadagnino himself is a half-breed (both Italian and Algerian), his relationship to the character of Elio, a conglomerate of French, Italian, American and Jewish descent, is especially strong, therefore making him come alive from the pages of Aciman’s novel.
But what makes Call Me By Your Name most cinematic of all is the combination of images and music put together in a way far less obvious than anything Sofia Coppola has ever done. Sufjan Stevens’–though not in any way bearing an auditory resemblance to the sound the early 1980s–contribution to the soundtrack is one of the most important elements in bequeathing us with the almost complete barrage on our senses (with the right scenes–like the now infamous “peach masturbation” one–we can almost experience taste and touch via cinema, but never smell). It is, ultimately, however, the last frame of the film, which the camera holds on for quite some time, that encapsulates just how hard it is to adhere to Mr. Perlman’s advice: “Right now, there is pain and sorrow. Don’t kill it.” Because stifling your feelings so as to feel nothing at all is a recipe for never being able to feel again. Not that you’ll be able to anyway–but still. It’s more psychologically beneficial than denial.