Many critics were enamoured of Luca Guadagnino’s last two features, I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015), both of which set Tilda Swinton’s uniquely self-enclosed sensuality against striking Italian backdrops (Milan and San Remo in the former, the Sicilian coast in the latter). I found them beautiful yet bloodless, lacking a certain warmth.
Certificate 15 131m 54s
Director Luca Guadagnino
Oliver Armie Hammer
Elio Perlman Timothée Chalamet
Mr Perlman Michael Stuhlbarg
Annella Perlman Amira Casar
Marzia Esther Garrel
Chiara Victoire Du Bois
Mafalda Vanda Capriolo
Anchise Antonio Rimoldi
art historians Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso
Call Me by Your Name, on the other hand, radiates heat. It is a lush, lusty affair, all pounding hearts and blazing loins. Guadagnino has shown a fondness for imbuing the gastronomic with metaphorical significance; in his fifth feature he gives us splattered egg yolks and blood dripping on to lamb chops, and a repeated motif of ripening fruit, culminating in a sex scene involving peaches that will no doubt become notorious. Not since American Pie (1999) has fruit been so thoroughly defiled.
The peach scene is lifted almost exactly from the 2007 novel by André Aciman, an American scholar specialising in the work of Proust. It is a story of adolescent sexual awakening set in the well-appointed home of an academic in mid-1980s Italy.
Elio is the 17-year-old only child of American professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his beautiful, cosmopolitan wife (Amira Casar). Until now he has been mostly heterosexual and has an ongoing flirtation with childhood friend Marzia. But when 24-year-old Oliver, the latest in a series of visiting postdocs to spend a summer at the villa, usurps Elio’s bedroom, he also seizes Marzia’s place in Elio’s sexual fantasies. We first glimpse Oliver with Elio from an upper window; as he mounts the staircase, Marzia casually kisses him, as if passing on the mantle.
Oliver (Armie Hammer, perfectly cast) is the aggressively handsome embodiment of all things American: an academic who speaks in abbreviations though he is clearly extremely articulate, as demonstrated by a grandstanding monologue on the etymology of the word ‘apricot’. Elio is puppyish, wiry rather than chiselled, more naive than the older man but also sensitive and reckless. Timothée Chalamet is sensational in the role: fierce and articulate, his hooded eyes flickering with secret thoughts. He looks a little like Melvil Poupaud or Louis Garrel (whose sister Esther coincidentally stars as Marzia), but he has a purposefulness they lack.
For much of the film little happens, and we watch Elio and Oliver move in circles while seemingly no closer to making a move. One feels the influence of Eric Rohmer (Aciman is an admirer) and James Ivory (the film’s screenwriter), that great chronicler of repressed desire. The tone is languorous but the pace restless. Scenes are short and cuts abrupt. It’s not clear whether Elio wants to be Oliver – borrowing his swimsuits, copying the Star of David he wears around his neck – or have him. Despite their physical differences, the would-be lovers seem strangely fungible as they trade bedrooms, clothes and names.
Of course, Call Me by Your Name is a queer film, albeit one that has more in common with the work of André Téchiné than Barry Jenkins: the milieu is so middle-class it’s almost fantastic, packed with references to antiquity, to Liszt and Bach, Heidegger and Heraclitus. In this regard and in others, Guadagnino is remarkably faithful to Aciman’s text, though he transposes the action from the Italian Riviera to the Lombardy countryside and streamlines the narrative by culling certain characters. He also – intriguingly – does away with a framing device that casts the main narrative as a flashback (the book has the men meet in middle age, while Guadagnino’s film finishes six months after the events of the summer).
Still, the film retains a certain Proustian sensibility. The camera pays an almost hyperreal attention to detail, poring over certain words and touches with the obsessiveness of an infatuated teenager. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s images are precise, saturated with cerulean blues, limoncello yellows, cherry reds and blushing apricots, but at the same time slightly worn and fuzzy, like a well-washed shirt. The world beyond Elio and Oliver’s immediate sphere is somehow faded (women, in particular, seem to hover out of focus in the background). Even the sound edit seems to over-amplify their voices.
The 1980s period setting heightens this effect. Call Me by Your Name is awash with details such as a Robert Mapplethorpe print, a Talking Heads T-shirt, a Penguin Classic. At an outdoor discotheque, Elio and Oliver dance to The Psychedelic Furs. It’s a backdrop that will raise a fond smile for many viewers. But Guadagnino’s setting is in a sense a platonic ideal of the 1980s. How many of us were ever so lithe and gorgeous, so intelligent and self-possessed? How many of us once knew the longing, and how many, really, the having? As Professor Perlman tells his son in an extraordinarily moving scene, a love like Elio and Oliver’s is rare indeed, and before we even know it, our best days our behind us. On the strength of this film, let’s hope that Guadagnino’s are not.
My summer of love
Luca Guadagnino’s exquisite coming-of-age love story Call Me by Your Name explores a passionate summer affair between two young men. Here the director explains why the film is a homage to the cinema he loves and discusses his debt to his great idol Bernardo Bertolucci. By Pamela Hutchinson.