Call Me By Your Name caused quite a sensation when it became an instant festival hit across the world last year. It’s based on the novel by André Aciman, which, besides finding some love among gay readers, was widely unknown to the “straight” community. Even with its original audience it was rejected by some because of having been written by a straight writer. However, James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory Productions) saw something in this coming of age story that was different from your usual gay coming of age story and had the possibility of crossover appeal. Ivory, despite having been well into middle age at the point the film is set (never mind when the book was published) probably saw a lot of himself in the lead character of Elio, having once a long time ago been a gay Jewish kid himself.
Ivory got the rights and reached out to numerous filmmakers, eventually latching onto Luca Guadagnino. Guadagnino initially was too busy, but agreed to help with the location scouting, as he lives in Northern Italy where the book and film are set. Eventually, they agreed to co-direct the film, but due to various reasons Guadagnino ended up doing it solo. Next they had to cast Elio and the object of his desire Oliver. They settled on Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, respectively, who both were nervous about taking on the roles. Yes, straight actors being nervous about playing “gay roles” is still a thing. Hammer was once tipped to be the next big thing, but after a serious of flops—most notably The Lone Ranger—he moved into the independent world, where he has delivered on that promise he showed all those years ago in The Social Network.
The film is set during summer of 1983. Elio is living a small Italian village while his dad, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg, studies Greco-Roman culture and his mother does translations. Elio is somewhat of a musical prodigy. One day Oliver shows up as the summer intern to help Mr. Perlman with his excavations while he works on his doctorate. Elio and Oliver soon become fast friends, simply because there is nothing else much to do except read books and go swimming. Soon a romance between the two blossoms, and for Elio’s it’s his first love affair—but at some point, Oliver needs to return home to the States.
The choice of setting is very specific to Elio’s development of his own sexuality, it’s 1983 and HIV/Aids is already an epidemic in the States, but the news hasn’t quite travelled to this idyllic Italian town. He doesn’t have the worries that many young gay men had through the ’80s, ’90s and still to the present day. The period detail is one of the aspects of the film where it slightly falters, Elio’s Talking Heads shirt, for instance, is from a still from Stop Making Sense (which came out in 1984) and is widely available on eBay. I do have a problem with contemporary t-shirts for bands used to set a film’s era: I noticed the same thing with another Talking Heads shirt in 20th Century Woman.
The locale is, of course, gorgeous to look at, but the film really either works or doesn’t due to the chemistry between the two leads. Hammer and especially Chalamet (from whose point of view the story is told), perfectly portray how these two guys fall head over heels for one another, and the inevitable end of the relationship—but it’s never tragic, unlike many other “gay romances.” This becomes clear if you compare it to something like Moonlight, which is a perfectly good film but most certainly revels in the protagonist’s torment, and lacked any sense of unrequited desire. The closest comparison would be Carol, which by the way it’s shot ensures that you totally get the characters’ attraction to one another.
The other performance that is a total knockout is by Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays the best and most progressive dad you could ever want. His monologue at the end is Academy-worthy, to say the least, but since that he gave two other great performances this year he cancelled himself out of a nomination. Esther Garrel plays Elio’s Italian girlfriend, who doesn’t pick up on his sexuality despite the fact that he has a giant Robert Mapplethorpe poster in his bedroom (it’s the image of Mapplthorpe all clad in leather with a submachine gun.)
The final major flaw is some of the music: I could’ve done without the twee folky indie pop of Sufjan Stevens, which basically acts as a score to the film. However, it’s saved by two dance sequences that use The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” which is obviously period-correct and thematically fits. The film’s pacing is also slightly off: it’s a little over two hours and could’ve probably lost somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes. But the ending is also one of the most heartbreaking in modern cinema.
Guadagnino has said he is planning four more films to tell about the relationship between Elio and Oliver over the years, and has said “I don’t think Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man,” which is in line with the first film, which shows the complexity of people and their sexualities. The Blu-Ray has a nice selection of features, including commentary tracks, a making-of featurette, a Q&A, and a music video for one of those twee songs by Stevens.