The three films that make up Luca Guadagnino’s self-described “Desire” trilogy all in some way organize their narratives around music. The Italian filmmaker relied on borrowed works from modern classical composer John Adams to determine the ebbing dramatic tension of 2009’s I Am Love, while 2015’s A Bigger Splash, which centers on the relationship between a fictional rock singer and her mercurial former lover and record producer, climaxes with an electric, lip-syncing performance of the Rolling Stones’s “Emotional Rescue.” But it’s the trilogy-capping romance Call Me by Your Name that most deeply connects this filmmaker’s abiding interest in music to a broader theme of the salvation found in the meditative power of the arts.
Adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 novel, the film is set in northern Italy in the summer of 1984. Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old aspiring pianist, develops a bond with Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older academic who Elio’s father, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), invites to the family villa as his research assistant. A budding romance is stoked by shared interests: for the Bach and Debussy pieces that Elio studiously practices, transcribes, and reinterprets, and for the Psychedelic Furs song that Elio watches Oliver dance to at a party. In the film’s most affecting sequence, Oliver professes his admiration for Elio (“You know more than anyone here”), and the two men, positioned on either side of a WWI memorial, come out to each other, literally crossing the divide of history.
Call Me by Your Name is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story that’s at its finest in moments when the relationships—between Elio and Oliver, but just as crucially between Elio and his archeologist father—take on larger meanings than their literal context implies, and Guadagnino finds evocative aesthetic expressions for them. The film’s romantic sensibility mixes dreamy crossfades, soft-focus lensing, and diegetic music bleeding into non-diegetic soundtrack cues (among them two new songs from Sufjan Stevens and Maurice Ravel’s oft-heard “Une Barque sur L’Ocean”). Guadagnino’s images feel momentous at times, his actors artfully positioned on screen like the Hellenic statues that Mr. Perlman excavates from the Mediterranean. This is especially true of Oliver, an Adonis-like hunk who comes to Elio from a foreign land. Guadagnino shoots Oliver as Elio must see him: statuesque, framed impeccably by windows and doorways, and glistening in the summer sun.
At one point, Guadagnino crafts a telling visual rhyme between Oliver, sunbathing by a pool, and one of Mr. Perlman’s sculptures, lying on the beach. Sometimes, the filmmaker leans on such correlations a little too hard, as in a scene in which Elio’s father, speaking to Oliver, suggests that the sculptures he catalogues are “daring you to desire them.” But Call Me by Your Name’s drama isn’t always as simple as it seems, and a late sequence reframes Mr. Perlman as less a fringe element to this story than an instructive one, his love of art and his work a tragic echo of his own unfulfilled desires.
There’s a subtlety to the development of theme and characterization in Call Me by Your Name that’s unusual for Guadagnino, whose films are usually brash and attention-grabbing. No one is likely to forget Ray Fiennes’s manic dancing in A Bigger Splash, and how, in an instant, it’s understood why everyone in that film is so hopelessly drawn to the character. Likewise, the way Guadagnino allows Tilda Swinton’s enjoyment of prawns to trigger an aestheticized flood of sensual desire in I Am Love represents the kind of weird and bold fetish that few filmmakers would indulge.
By comparison, Guadagnino’s form is more reserved throughout this film, and there’s some justification for that, as he’s ceding agency to the relationship crafted by his actors—which is one of impressive emotional acuity, at once heartbreaking and sensual, and with an unusually convincing levity about it. Chalamet in particular is impressive, capturing the feelings of youthful self-confidence punctured by the sudden, galvanizing realization of not being the person you think you are, and how terrifying that can be (the actor’s breakdown in the film’s final, devastating scene almost singlehandedly justifies an otherwise unnecessary epilogue). But there’s no reason why Guadagnino’s faith in his actors needs to preclude sensorily riveting craft, and while Call Me by Your Name nails all the intimate details of Elio and Oliver’s tender relationship, an indulgence of the director’s emphatic visual energy might have brought out the extent of their passion even more.