It is not easy to put Call Me by Your Name into words. Luca Guadagnino’s new film, which adapts André Aciman’s 2007 novel about a precocious 17-year-old who falls in lust and love with his father’s 24-year-old graduate student, is remarkable for how it turns literature into pure cinema, all emotion and image and heady sensation.
You could call Call Me by Your Name an erotic film, then — and it absolutely, undeniably is. But I mean it in a way that’s broader than our modern narrow usage of the term: not just sex but also love, which is bigger and more frightening. Eros is a name for a kind of love that’s equal parts passion and torment, a kind of irrational heart fire that opens a gate into something longer-lasting. But it’s love that also feels, in the moment, like hurtling headlong off a cliff.
I can’t remember a film that better captures that kind of madness and heightened attention to not just the object of desire but also the world at large. Nor can I recall a movie that more directly appeals to all of the audience’s senses to make them feel what’s happening onscreen. It’s undoubtedly a gay love story, though it’s less about coming out than coming of age. Call Me by Your Name is a lush, heady experience for the body, but it’s also an arousal for the soul.
Call Me by Your Name drips with desire as it spins a story of first love
Set “somewhere in northern Italy” in the summer of 1983, Call Me by Your Name lingers over six sun-soaked weeks in which everything shifts for Elio (Timothée Chalamet). Cocky and preternaturally sophisticated — but with a hint of the insecure teenager still hanging around him — Elio joins his doting, unconventional parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) at their comfortable ramshackle Italian villa, where they prepare to welcome their annual guest, the latest in a series of graduate students who spend the summer working with Elio’s father, a classics professor.
This summer that student is handsome, confident Oliver (Armie Hammer), who has a way of taking up space: He’s very tall, for sure, but his very presence seems to fill the spaces he’s in, whether it’s on the court in a casual volleyball game, at a local bar, or dancing in a crowd on the town square. Whereas Elio affects a studied aloofness, Oliver plunges into everything, clumsily destroying one soft-boiled egg at breakfast the first morning, then downing another while murmuring his appreciation, a man of ravenous desire only sometimes held back by a veneer of gentility. He refuses another: “I know myself,” he says. “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.”
Elio looks on in wonder as this happens, both disgusted and fascinated by Oliver, who barrels out of rooms hollering, “Later!” Oliver’s frank American confidence is an inverse of Elio’s quieter impishness. The two couldn’t be more different.
The chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet, and their performances, sells the relationship completely. (They’re true starmaking turns for both actors, along with Stuhlbarg in a brief but key scene.) But the spark between them takes a while to fan into a flame, especially since Elio has taken up with a French girl named Marzia (Esther Garrel) who’s in town for the summer. Oliver and Elio’s relationship starts out combative, with Elio navigating whatever’s happening inside of him by feigning disinterest, playing coy, and watching Oliver from afar while taunting him up close. Eventually they become friends. But one evening his mother reads from a 16th-century French romance, in which a knight yearning for a princess with whom he’s formed a friendship wonders, “Is it better to speak or to die?” And Elio decides he has to speak.
We know (and Oliver and Elio and Elio’s parents know) that this can’t last forever, but in capturing the burn, Guadagnino makes us feel Elio’s desire, and thus his devastation. Every image practically drips with longing: a live fish someone’s caught in the river, pages flapping in the hot breeze, water pouring from a tap into a stone pool, a table spread with breakfast preparations, the smoldering end of a cigarette. And, of course, the bodies of beautiful young people, which seem to have very little shielding them from the hot Italian sun.
In this film, as in earlier ones like A Bigger Splash and I Am Love, Guadagnino’s sensual attention to the textures and smells and intimate noises of Italian life builds out a cinematic world that encompasses his characters but is much greater than them. (It’s no accident that Heraclitus’s The Cosmic Fragments, philosophical texts about the world rather than just man, makes a brief but pointed appearance.) The score mingles all kinds of music together — notably, John Adams’s “Hallelujah Junction,” the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” and two original songs by Sufjan Stevens — and it feels like this movie is sparkling, as if you’re watching it in 4D. It’s intoxicating.
It’s also pointedly Edenic, capturing a paradise that will inevitably be lost — but how pregnant with weighty joy and fullness the paradise is in the meantime; the inevitable loss seems only to heighten this. In A Bigger Splash, paradise falls when the snake of jealousy winds its way into the bliss; in Call Me by Your Name, it’s the simple, inevitable parting mandated by the ways that age and culture and station will keep Elio and Oliver apart.
Call Me By Your Name draws on ancient themes while mingling together deeply human experiences
The name of the film, and a pivotal moment in it, comes from Oliver pleading in a whisper to Elio, after they’ve finally slept together, for him to “call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.”
It feels like an odd request at first, until you remember an idea that surfaces in Plato’s Symposium: that in Greek mythology, humans were created as four-armed, four-legged, two-faced creatures, but split apart by Zeus and condemned to spend life searching for their other halves. In the Symposium’s rendering, whether one searches for a female or male half has to do with the nature of your original being, and there are various means through which two halves who find each other might live in companionship.
But “when one of them meets with his other half,” it continues, “the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment.” This is the highest form of love — “the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another.” This is, in other words, an origin story for what we moderns might call soulmates, and it hums through Call Me by Your Name like electricity.
Ancient sculptures of figures who, as Elio’s father puts it, “dare you desire them” recur throughout the movie, strengthening the allusion to the ancients. And it mixes the pagan with the idea of a Garden of Eden — when Elio and Oliver spend their first night together, it’s certainly explicit at first, but then the camera pans out the window to rest on a tree. And a piece of juicy, luscious fruit shows up in a key, unforgettable scene that weaves together the natures of desire and guilt.
But unlike the story of the Garden of Eden, there’s nothing like sin in Call Me by Your Name’s vocabulary — or at least, nothing puritanical. (One assumes, watching the film, that a puritanical thought has never entered Guadagnino’s head.) This isn’t a film about wrongdoing and punishment; it is about love, loss, and piercing joy in the context of a gay romance.
Elio’s father, speaking to him near the end of the story, lays out the movie’s sense of what’s right and what’s wrong: “Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once,” he says. “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’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.” It is worth wading into desire, the movie suggests; it’s the only way to be alive, both in the good parts and the painful ones.
The way Call Me by Your Name intermingles lust and love, desire and selflessness, flesh and soul is fully in service of Eros, but it isn’t just about sex, though that’s certainly a big part of it. It’s also trying to make us feel a mingling of souls that have found each other, and evoke the exhilaration of that meeting. It summons an erotic orientation toward the world with all its power, and then pours it onto the audience. It is, undoubtedly, Guadagnino’s masterpiece.
Call Me by Your Name opens in theaters on November 22.