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Film Review: Call Me By Your Name

This awards-worthy film is a tender celebration of self-discovery; an intimate coming-of-age tale that takes a languorous look at first-love, sexual discovery and friendship.

Set in an unnamed rural village in Northern Italy during the 1980s, the film introduces Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a young man of seventeen whose father hires an American graduate to assist with his academic work over a listless summer. Initially displaying a passive dislike for Oliver’s self-assured, brusque manner, his behaviour alternates between petulance and intrigue. The two of them have their individual flirtations with women in the village, and spend the hot days idly swimming and reading. But as time passes, the two of them find themselves inextricably drawn together; their growing bond strengthened by the melancholy inevitability of their parting.

This is an intimate, personal story, a celebration of the heartache of first love and the fluidity of desire that chooses not to limit the film’s emotional truth with prescriptive labels of sexual identity. The film and its characters approach this relationship in a seductively elliptical way.  Perusing slides of Greek statues with Oliver, Elio’s father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, effusing benevolence) casually notes how they seem to be “daring you to desire them”, while in another scene his mother reads from a French Romance novel about a prince who loved a woman so much he was unable to profess it. This indirectly addresses Elio’s feelings towards Oliver, which his parents seem to subtly intuit. On a bike ride into town, Elio confides to Oliver that he “doesn’t know much about the things that really matter”. Despite their obscure, evasive dialogue, the emotional weight and vulnerability the actors bring to their lines indicates this as a veiled ‘coming out’. The reason for such indirectness is ambiguous given the tolerant, bohemian enclave that surrounds them. However, given the sexual attitudes of the 1980s outside their country idyll, perhaps such passion is forced to remain private.

Elio’s desire is more clearly conveyed through glances, touch, and the positioning of the camera. In the introductory scenes, Elio watches Oliver dancing or talking to his father with curiosity. These are often filmed from Elio’s point of view, with Oliver’s broad frame filling the screen. Filmed in low-angle, it bestows on him the same sense of vitality and power as the Greek statues they study, an impression only strengthened by Oliver’s demeanour of stoic imperturbability. An indicator of their burgeoning relationship is the increasing level of physical contact between them. During an early volleyball game, Oliver approaches Elio, briskly placing his hand on his bare shoulder. Noting the youth’s tension, he starts to massage his arm and shoulders before a prickly Elio tries to wriggle free to avoid embarrassment. It is as though Oliver is intentionally trying to provoke Elio’s feelings, and so initially he remains cautious, distant.

When their mutual desire and affection eventually lead to sex, the camera becomes coy; diverting its gaze to the still, starry sky as their tender explorations become more urgent, and only cutting back to them post-coitus. Given the increasingly frank representation of gay sexuality in both film (Stranger by the Lake) and TV (Game of Thrones), this is an interesting elision. What it does do is suggest the transcendent nature of their relationship; the calm beauty of their togetherness, echoed in Oliver’s haunting words, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine”. Another affecting visual metaphor occurs during their parting excursion. Hiking up hills and mountains in joyful isolation, a waterfall cascades and roars behind them; a symbol of the natural force of their feelings. Such moments must only prove more painful to Elio however, with the knowledge that Oliver must eventually depart.

Like Brokeback Mountain, the film maintains that desire is an uncontrollable force of nature, simultaneously wonderful and devastating. Unlike that film though, Call Me By Your Name is never fatalistic and avoids the condemnation or punishment prevalent in numerous other LGBT narratives. The film’s central relationship is treated with more preciousness than that, evidenced in Michael Stuhlbarg’s powerful, sagacious monologue to his lovesick son Elio: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty […] to feel nothing so as not to feel anything - what a waste”. It is a perfectly modulated expression of gentle understanding and parental concern; a caution to embrace life’s pain in order that we don’t obscure its beauty.

The film’s final shot is a static long-take of Elio after learning of Oliver’s impending marriage.  Through the window we see snow fall outside as he stares into the fireplace; his face flickering with the glow of the flames as well as with emotion. His expression shifts between barely restrained grief, yearning and fond reverie as his family quietly prepare a celebratory dinner; the clink and clatter of plates and cutlery as they set the table lending the melancholy ending a bruised sense of hopeful continuation.

Call Me By Your Name is in UK cinemas since 19 January