On coming out of the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival a few weeks ago there was a feeling permeating from the audience that we’d been witness to two hours of something that was quite special. Adapted from André Aciman’s novel of the same name, Call Me by Your Name is worlds more than a gay coming-of-age summer romance. Hailed by critics at film festivals all over as a tender baring of two hearts, Luca Guadagnino does what he does best as the Italian master of the sensual and the sumptuous. He tells a simple story of seventeen-year-old Elio (the exquisite, Timothée Chalamet), whose family spend their summers in Northern Italy, and his emotional and physical voyage falling deeply in love with his father’s twenty-something academic house-guest, Oliver (blonde, block-buster Adonis, Armie Hammer). Call Me by Your Name is more than a film, it’s a feeling, it’s a languidly endless summer but is also over far too soon – for the audience and the characters. Such is the desperation and devastation of first love.
Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) directs with a veteran assurance; the film was shot in his hometown of Crema, and his visual eye honestly reveals a landscape he knows intimately. Every frame is a work of art as he manages to concoct a nuanced, organic atmosphere of lust and languor that is not once gratuitous. He takes the actors to physical places that seem at home only in Italy and this physicality is what makes Timothée Chalamet’s performance so mesmerising. He is the beating heart of the film, the pit of the peach if you will. Elio is confident in himself as a budding scholar but not as an object of Oliver’s affection, and Chalamet walks this line so delicately, his emotional pinnacle being the moment when one lazy summer afternoon he has sex with a peach. A moment of curiosity and boredom, a foray into the sexual unknown. Oliver walks in on him soon after and, on spying the oozing fruit and laughing over it, Elio cringes from embarrassment and cries over the time that they’ve wasted. Armie Hammer’s arthouse turn is also fantastic; he has the confidence of an eighties American but is also coy, withheld and cautious. He is absolutely at home in the character, despite never having played a role like this before. The two of them do more than work off one another, they work into one another. Their chemistry is completely of the earth and lies in their characters ambivalence: they are reticent to act on their feelings but at the same time revel in their dance.
The Italian air crackles with shared artistic passion between the two characters: the piano pieces of Bach and Ravel, the poetry of Catullus and philosophy of Heraclitus, the sculptures of Praxiteles; Guadagnino’s classical allusion is not subtle. The social seclusion and the bucolic setting in which homosexual love is given freedom to blossom is doubtlessly derivative of ancient Greco-Roman pastoral poetry; Guadagnino treads ground traversed once by Virgil in his Eclogues, his celebration of love and lust in the landscape of southern Italy. There’s still an innocence to his writing but he’s assured of what he wants to get across, much like our young protagonist. Guadagnino’s use of icon and imagery is evocative of the classical as well: a shot in which we pan from a cross on a church down to red socialist party posters highlights the underlying turbulent nature of Italy’s political system and the religious kinship the men have. Virgil’s cypress, willow and oak tree motifs are replaced with the carnal and highly symbolic fruit: peaches, apricots, more peaches, beautifully ripe soft-boiled eggs. Sufjan Stevens pens two new original songs for the film as well as a reimagining of his Futile Devices. He envelopes the film as a gentle bard invoking the muses of love, poetry, ancient literature from the landscape of the courting ritual.
Despite its allusion, Call Me by Your Name is not bound by time. It is a pure depiction of the wonders and tragedies of first love. In one of the final scenes James Ivory’s screenplay produces a fragile moment of catharsis as Elio’s father, played superbly by Michael Stuhlbarg, tells his son: “You only get one heart and one body, if you’re not careful that heart will be worn out.” This lack of internal or external antagonism is what has already made this film so cherished in the LGBT+ community. The characters’ emotional conflict is the film’s plot device, the overwhelming journey of discovering yourself in the eyes of someone else, and the strength it takes to transfer an internal thought into a physical action.