Those put off by the aesthetic flashiness of Luca Guadagnino’s prior two features, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, may be surprised by Call Me by Your Name’s relative stylistic restraint. The film, based on a 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman, traces the maturation of Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), but the story’s coming-of-age arc is so delicately rendered that audiences may not even realize the growth Elio has made until they’ve had time to reflect on his behavior after the credits have rolled.
Romantic desire, both acted-on or sublimated through gestures, was the subject of I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, one that Guadagnino reflected through his impulsive filmmaking style. The roving camerawork, the lurid colors, and the operatic soundtracks all served to viscerally evoke passion, so much so that the characters at times barely needed to say any words to each other for us to grasp how they felt at any given moment.
Guadagnino may be less showy in his means in Call Me by Your Name, but the ends remain the same. By charting the sexually charged verbal and physical rapport between Elio and the older Oliver (Armie Hammer), the new assistant to Elio’s archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg), he funnels his romanticism through a more intimate character-based perspective, with that intimacy reflected in the mostly piano-based soundtrack (featuring compositions by John Adams, Maurice Ravel, Johann Sebastian Bach, among others).
Guadagnino is also refracting his erotic obsessions through a new-for-him queer lens—and, in this case, it’s broadly queer rather than just gay, because Elio, still figuring himself out throughout Call Me by Your Name, makes increasingly bold sexual overtures to both Oliver and Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio’s longtime female friend. In the end, though, it’s Oliver that he can’t get out of his head, but unlike Brokeback Mountain, in which its two male characters felt the pressure to suppress their romantic feelings for one another, Elio and Oliver do eventually consummate their love with ecstatic, exuberant giddiness. And unlike the terminally restrained Ang Lee, Guadagnino gives full measure to the characters’ heaving passions, standing back and trusting his actors to express those passions vividly and completely.
Like Brokeback Mountain, Call Me by Your Name is a period piece, set in Italy in 1983, when homosexuality was less accepted than it is today. Thus, Elio and Oliver still find it necessary to talk around their attraction to each other in the early stages of their relationship, and that tentativeness extends to their behavior around others: Oliver’s possibly overcompensating gyrations with a woman on a dance floor, Elio’s public trysts with Marzia. Refreshingly, given that Elio’s parents are so progressive, there’s none of the usual melodrama over whether their romance will be met with wide disapproval if it’s discovered. In fact, Elio’s father delivers a moving monologue toward the end of the film that not only obliquely reveals something deeply personal about himself, but voices the kind of understanding and empathy that all LGBTQ people warrant, regardless of time and place.
Call Me by Your Name also proves affecting as a chronicle of a young man learning to embrace his more emotional side. At the start of the film, Elio is seen plunging into his intellectual obsessions with literature and music—enthusiasms that one assumes have been passed down by his father, an academic who focuses much of his archaeological work on unearthing ancient sculptures. But it takes Oliver and his casual American ways and open gestures of affection to implicitly suggest an alternative to Elio: to not live inside his own head, and to open himself up to pure animal instinct.
At first, the changes Elio demonstrates are small: the way he projects markedly greater confidence while he walks down a street, the way he more openly shows his exhilaration about sights he witnesses. But perhaps the most concrete demonstration of his increased emotional maturity comes in the film’s final shot: a daringly extended close-up of Elio’s face as he tearfully reacts with sorrow at something he’s just learned about Oliver. In this context, though, the shot evokes both tragedy and a bittersweet sense of growth. Now that he’s opened himself up to embracing a wider range of human emotion, he’s learning to accept the pain that coexists with the pleasure of living.
Berlinale runs from February 9—17.