In Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’, Timothée Chalamet provides an outstanding portrait of a swooning teen’s sexual awakening. By Christos Tsiolkas.
‘Call Me By Your Name’
Elio Perlman, the 17-year-old central protagonist of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, is a youth on heat. As played by Timothée Chalamet, Elio can hardly manage to keep control of his ever-present erection. It’s a stunningly assured performance by this young actor, capturing the vulnerability, the gaucheness and the brash self-absorption of adolescence. Since seeing the film I have been racking my brain trying to think of cinematic precedents. There’s something of the diffidence and hesitant masculinity that Jean-Pierre Léaud had as Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Stolen Kisses, and there is also a touch of the unapologetic raw sexuality of the young Gérard Depardieu in his work for Bertrand Blier. But Léaud and Depardieu’s early sexual personae were strictly heterosexual and one of the great pleasures of this new film is the polymorphous nature of Elio’s desire. Chalamet captures that quality that can be so unsettling for an adult when we are around youth in their late teens, that disconcerting sense that they could fuck anything that moves.
Throughout Call Me By Your Name there are hints of the unashamed and joyful sensuality of Bertolucci, and Guadagnino has often referenced the influence of that great Italian director. Also present are plangent sensual rhythms that recall the work of André Téchiné, in particular his masterwork, Wild Reeds, which was also a sexual coming-of-age story. But in the end I had to reach back to the early sound era for an apt comparison, to Jean Vigo’s 1933 Zero for Conduct. Chalamet conveys something of the spirit of the youth in that irrepressibly anarchic film, of how our bodies are blasphemously resistant to self-control and repression. When Elio finally gets to have sex, he can’t control himself. His body erupts in joy.
I think it is telling that no English-language films came to mind. There’s great comedy in Call Me By Your Name, but there’s no indulgence in the smuttiness of an American Pie, none of the visceral neediness and disgust with which Judd Apatow’s characters react to sex and their bodies. By the end, Elio’s maturity requires him to experience the suffering that comes from the loss of love, but there is no sense of his needing to be punished. In fact, no one is punished in this film. For no one does anything of which they are ashamed.
The film takes place in 1983 and we are somewhere in northern Italy. Elio lives with his parents, played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar, in a palatial villa that his mother has inherited. Elio’s father is an archaeologist and has invited an American student, Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, to spend the summer with them. The family is clearly haute-bourgeois, and their conversation moves easily between Italian, French and English. There is a groundskeeper and there is a maid. Elio has to give up his room for the older visitor and so there is initially a resentment of Oliver. But very quickly he develops a desire and a fascination with the older man. In the first graceful act of the film we are unsure whether Oliver reciprocates the youth’s ardour. Elio is also infatuated with Marzia, played by Esther Garrel, and he suspects that Oliver might be attracted to one of Marzia’s friends. But as the man and the youth begin to spend more and more time together, the sexual attraction between them becomes undeniable. Though Oliver initially attempts to resist the boy’s fervent desire for sex, both because of his own uncertainty of his sexuality and because of the age difference between them, the force of the attraction proves too strong. They can’t keep their hands off each other. We know, just as Elio and Oliver do, that the relationship must finish once the summer ends and Oliver returns to the United States. This knowledge adds piquancy and narrative heft to the film.
The script is by James Ivory, the director whose collaborations with producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are synonymous with a 1980s bourgeois art-cinema of literary adaptation, films such as The Europeans, A Room with a View and The Bostonians. Often dismissed as conservative and unimaginative, a genre has been coined – Merchant-Ivory – to both identify and critique Ivory as a director. I think the critical dismissal is often unfair, in that it doesn’t acknowledge fine earlier work such as Bombay Talkie and Hullabaloo over George and Bonnie’s Pictures, films that intimately explored the fraught dynamic of Anglo-Indian relationships and history. And I think the Merchant-Ivory production of The Remains of the Day is an outstanding translation of a great literary work into a film. But there is no doubt that there can be a patina of superficial gloss in much of Ivory’s other adaptations, where costuming and bucolic landscapes are inadequate substitutes for the literary voice of Henry James or E. M. Forster. Ivory’s giving of the script to Guadagnino to direct was an inspired choice. The Italian director’s familiarity with both the natural beauty and the cultural mores and history of the locales means that the film is never in danger of being visually bland, of becoming mere travelogue.
The script is an adaptation of the 2007 novel by André Aciman, and I think the screenplay is exemplary. What lifts it above being merely a beautifully told coming-of-age story is that it also interrogates memory and time, how we reflect back on the meaning of first love, and on how we experience regret at the loss of our youth. There are three notions of time at play in Call Me By Your Name. The first, and the dominant register of the film, is about the actual experience of the past and of being young: the scenes of Elio’s loss of virginity, his abandonment to sex and his conflicted responses to falling in love. Guadagnino’s referencing of a European cinema that I have mentioned – Truffaut, Bertolucci, Blier, and also, at moments, Jean Renoir – is not merely homage but acts for us as viewers as a means by which to understand how our own memories of film inflect how we make sense of our youthful passions and follies. For those of us who love film and who love literature, it is often impossible to separate the swoon of first love from the books and films that we devoured in this period. I know for myself that Stendhal’s The Red and the Black always brings back the scent of the first man I desired, a humiliating blush as I recall my first, awkward sex acts.
But the dominant cinematic inspiration for the film strikes me as being Vittorio De Sica. Elio and Oliver are both Jewish, and that shared sense of being outsiders is not an unimportant part of the bond that forms between them. Elio confesses to a certain silencing of his family’s Jewishness that is part of the northern Italian social contract. The fact that the narrative largely plays over a summer recalls De Sica’s great work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a film about the lethal consequences of anti-Semitic European fascism. Both films are bathed in the warm light of northern Italy and both films share a melancholy nostalgia. Whether exploring the proletarian worlds of Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D., or the near aristocratic milieu of the Finzi-Continis, De Sica’s cinema was always marked by charity and generosity. Similarly, there is nothing of judgement or self-righteous condemnation in Guadagnino’s work in Call Me By Your Name.
There is the lived experience of the past and there is our memory of it. This is the film’s section notion of time. The novel is set a few years later but in setting it in 1983, Ivory and Guadagnino also obliquely but assuredly ask us to reflect on that particular time and our knowledge of what proceeds from that moment. That is the year AIDS will begin to shift our understanding of sex, coupling thanatos with eros again, and farewelling the largely celebratory sexual politics of the 1970s. It is also the year the cultural and musical experimentations of punk and post-punk will enter the mainstream. In one of the film’s loveliest scenes, Oliver abandons himself to dancing to The Psychedelic Furs’ new-wave hit Love My Way. His preppy clothes, his white-boy ungainliness, the way his hair is cut, can’t help also reminding us of the Brat Pack films of that era, the Andrew McCarthys and James Spaders of the John Hughes films. We know, watching Oliver dance, that he is already beginning to lament a youth that is leaving him, whereas Elio is impatient to grow up. Such scenes might have specific relevance and touch exact memories for those of us who were youths or adults in the early ’80s, but I think even for viewers who were children or not yet born, the film allows for a reflection that comes from observing youth, for whom reading and the sometimes inert passing of time is central to the experience of adolescence. These kids aren’t terrified of being bored. Elio gives Marzia a book of poetry as a love offering, and in his seduction of Oliver he brings him to a river idyll, the place where he goes to read. The film suggests not only that our notions of sex and sexuality have changed over the decades but also our comprehension of time itself.
Call Me By Your Name begins with a series of photographs of classical Hellenic statues of ephebes. In a pivotal scene, Elio, his father and Oliver go to the coast to see a fragment of a classical statue that has been released by the sea. The film asks us to contemplate the long history of Hellenic love that still undergirds so much of homosexual desire. That is the third aspect of time that is at play in this film. The ephebe, of course, is Elio himself and I hope I’ve made clear that there is no trace of lasciviousness in the film’s celebration of Elio’s body and sexuality. It’s in this sense that I think Guadagnino’s work as a director is in perfect symmetry and sympathy with Ivory’s script. I suspect that a contemporary English language director might have been too fearful to so ecstatically celebrate youthful beauty. In his previous films, such as I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino exhibited a real flair for sensuality, for taking our breath away with radiant moments of visual beauty. But he’s never worked with a script as good as this one. The work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is lovely, too. Shooting on 35-millimetre film, his camera seems to capture every possible hue of colour and shade of light available in a Mediterranean summer. The cast is uniformly superb. Chalamet, Hammer and Stuhlbarg are particularly outstanding, but in a much smaller role I thought Garrel’s playing of Marzia to be deeply sympathetic and charming. This is a film that is a testament to the centrality of collaboration to the art of film.
The penultimate scene of Call Me By Your Name involves a conversation between Elio and his father. All that we have witnessed to this point, all the reflection on sex, love and time, culminates in a dazzling near soliloquy by Stuhlbarg. The love he shares with his son, the wisdom he imparts, and the regret that he confesses, underscore the radicalism of this fiercely anti-puritanical film. He knows his son will hurt in pursuing love, he knows there might be possible danger and unhappiness ahead for Elio. But just as the sea released an ancient beauty, he encourages Elio to take the plunge in his pursuit of love and desire. One always fears hyperbole as a critic but I’d rather that than not to do justice to this moment. It is stunning in its execution and in its maturity.
The end of the film brings us to winter. And we know that Elio is leaving behind adolescence. Chalamet has taken us from innocence to knowledge, and we, as an audience, feel that we have shared in all his experiences, that we too have been lost in that long-ago summer. That is indeed an astounding feat by an actor. His performance is dazzling. As is this film. I think it superlative.
THEATRE Pop Up Globe
Sydney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, until February 3
VISUAL ART Mikala Dwyer: A Shape of Thought
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 4
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CULTURE Sydney Festival
Venues throughout Sydney, January 6-28
MULTIMEDIA Kids Summer Festival
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THEATRE The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Arts Centre, Melbourne, January 11-February 25
Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, January 12-21
MUSIC Cygnet Folk Festival
Venues throughout Cygnet, Tasmania, January 12-14
CULTURE Midsumma Festival
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VISUAL ART Andrew Hazewinkle: Before the Age of the Museum
Michael Bugelli Gallery, Hobart, January 18-March 31
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Lust summer".
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