By Brendan Alec Jevons (Orlando, FL)
For a little backstory, I connected to this film on a very personal level for a couple of reasons. This past summer I experienced my first proper relationship. I was with a boy from school and I was absolutely crazy for him. I lost my virginity to him and was completely infatuated with every second we spent together. Unfortunately, he had to go away to work a summer camp in May and was gone for the entire summer with limited communication. By the time he returned in August, time had destroyed both my sanity and any chance of us salvaging what we had before. It took a toll on me for a while and to be honest I’m still processing and recovering from it in a way. Going even further back into my life, my dad’s side of the family is British and all live in various parts of England.
When I was younger I would visit them every summer for a few weeks, but as I grew older I found that college and work were more important and I wasn’t able to visit anymore. The last time I visited, I decided to goof around on Tinder while I recovered in bed from severe jetlag. I ended up matching with a boy named Chris and we instantly hit it off. We had the same sense of humor and spent every day of the trip texting so much that my phone died more times than I could count. We spent a day together in the nearby city of Wolverhampton, walking around and visiting bars for a few drinks. About a week later I visited his house in Kidderminster and while we entertained the idea of fooling around, we both knew that becoming emotionally attached to a relationship with such a brief expiration date would be foolish. I still keep in touch with him as friends, but the idea of what could have been hurt me for a while after that trip.
If you’ve watched this film you’ll understand why those two particular stories are paramount to the way I was affected by Call Me by Your Name, a story all about a romance whose only enemy is time. What I enjoyed so much about this film is that at its heart it is a coming-of-age film rather than an LGBT film, and actually the sexuality of both Elio and Oliver is only sparingly made to be an important factor in their relationship. So much about this film was executed beautifully. Through various aspects such as scenic choice and costume design, the production team captured the warmth and tranquility of Italy in the 1980’s that almost made me feel nostalgic for something I’d never even experienced.
While I’d visited Italy once with my family a few years back, this film gave me a different kind of longing. A longing for a summer of reading, biking, discovery, exploration, and romance. It was a wonderful backdrop for the two characters to explore their relationship. The film was shot beautifully, with many lingering shots that allowed for a rich appreciation of the landscape. I appreciated that other supporting characters and their daily lives were there to paint a broader picture and helped the film feel more alive. Even in the case of Elio’s father, his research, and the reason Oliver was even staying with them in the first place, the audience learns just enough to feel that everyone in this town has a life of their own, but none of it begs enough attention to detract from the core of the film, which is Elio’s sexual awakening.
The performances are all around wonderful. A particular standout is Timothée Chalamet as Elio, whose expression frequently says more than any script ever could. He is certainly one to look out for, as he also delivers a great performance in A24’s Lady Bird (2017). Armie Hammer is daring, charming, and the perfect temptation to allow Elio to discover himself. The two of them have an undeniably genuine chemistry. Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar, Elio’s parents, are full of such warmth and support, and the former of which delivers an incredibly impactful monologue at the end of the film that summarizes Elio’s journey beautifully. The script for this film never wastes a single word, and the dialogue is written realistically, efficiently, and with the natural subtext that comes when a character truly doesn’t know how to express what they really want to say. A delightfully refreshing part of this film is how it defies the tropes that audiences have come to expect from films that focus on LGBT romances. The film almost purposely sets you up to expect the usual outcomes. You wait for his parents to find the notebook on the bed, or catch the two of them together, or for there to be some conflict and consequence to their love. Instead we have the chance to let the characters breathe and discover one another, and I imagine that the film is almost easier to appreciate on a repeat viewing because the audience is able to let their guard down about those moments that never come.
There are some clever uses of imagery and metaphor in this film, from the scene with Elio and the peach, to the house fly that only seems to appear when Elio is actively trying not to think of Oliver. One of my favorite recurring motifs has to do with statues. From what we understand of the work that Mr. Perlman and Oliver are doing, they are cataloguing old marble statues from a particular period in history. These statues serve as a parallel to Elio and Oliver, and the following quote from Elio’s father is the crux of that connection:
“Muscles are firm. Not a straight body in these statues, they’re all curved. Sometimes impossibly curved and so nonchalant, hence their ageless ambiguity. As if they’re daring you to desire them.”
There is a discussion about untouched beauty regarding these statues, which is reflected in the way that sex is presented in the film. All of Elio’s sexual ventures with Marzia (Esther Garrel) are shown much more explicitly than the romantic sex that occurs between Elio and Oliver. Their nights together are presented in a much more implied way, and by exhibiting only as much as needed to understand the sensuality of their relationship, it feels more ephemeral and untouched when compared to the realistic but ultimately unfulfilling heterosexual relationship that Elio pursues.
This film also uses language in a creative way. It’s fascinating to watch the shift in demeanor that Elio takes on when alternating between speaking in Italian and English, almost as if he’s portraying two different characters. He seems to absorb more English the longer he spends with Oliver. The first time Elio is with Marzia, they converse exclusively in Italian. When she later returns to confront him about his disappearance, which the audience knows is because he was with Oliver, she questions him in Italian and he responds in English, with the conversation shifting back and forth between the two languages. It served as an interesting way to create a further divide between Elio and Marzia as he explored his feelings for Oliver.
One of the most impactful components of this film, and one whose role in the film’s success cannot be understated, is the use of music. The last film that I remember feeling such a visceral connection to the soundtrack and incidental score was La La Land (2016). Typically, regardless of how much a film’s score supports the action of the scene in the moment, few scores are able to invoke a response through emotional recall after the film has ended. Sufjan Stevens’ three contributions (“Futile Devices”, “Mystery of Love”, and “Visions of Gideon”), along with the incidental piano pieces, achieved just that. Each one beautifully captured the stages of Elio and Oliver’s relationship as it unfolded, and listening to them afterwards almost allows you to revisit that journey aurally.
Call Me by Your Name is so much more than a romantic drama with LGBT characters. It’s so universal at its core. It’s about firsts: the first love, first time having sex, first heartbreak. The passion, the butterflies, the mystery, the exploration, the joy, the sorrow, the longing, the nostalgia. It executes all of this flawlessly. The four-minute-long credit scene that encapsulates all of these emotions as Elio hauntingly sits in front of the fireplace is the perfect melancholic bow on such a special piece of cinema.