“But youth is the Lord of Life.
Youth has a kingdom waiting for it.”
— Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance
Adolescence is filled with pangs, from the moment you fully entrust your heart to someone for the first time in your life to the very second you begin to share your body with them. From the burst of warmth that comes from having the new guy in town return your gaze to the rapid sinking of your heart when that same crush acts coldly towards you. From the upchuck of all the alcohol you probably shouldn’t have drank to the realization that a train receding into the horizon is carrying someone away out of your life for good.
In Luca Guadagnino’s widely beloved and (rightfully) raved-about film adaptation of André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name, seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, who has, by far, given us the most delightfully earnest interviews of this entire awards season) spends his summer days in northern Italy, biking along never busy roads, luxuriating on a bed letting his thoughts come and go and basking in the sun, poolside. His day-to-day life in the countryside is filled with dance parties with his friends – all of whom are operating on serious carpe diem mode – until the wee hours of the night, slow and easy conversation with his family in the backyard, and pleasant piano-playing and guitar-strumming, filling the pages of his journal with musical notes and notes on his music.
If Elio’s summer is the wallowing waters found in an imagined fountain of youth, then the hand that begins to slowly but surely stir those waves is the arrival of the all-American Oliver (Armie Hammer, a golden boy who radiates like Robert Redford and sounds like Jon Hamm). Oliver is this summer’s graduate assistant to Elio’s father Mr. Perlman, an accomplished archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg, having the best year of his life). Something about Oliver, this blonde-haired, blue-eyed stranger, subtly strikes the introspective Elio as ineluctable. Oliver sleeps and snores through his first dinner at the Perlman’s summer home, but his presence in Elio’s room awakens something in the teenage boy.
Thus begins a buildup of not just mystifying first impressions and missed flirtations, but also of a young man nurturing his unexpected urges and letting his confidence bloom and his boldness blossom. In the first act of Guadagnino’s enchanting film, it is Oliver who invites; in the latter half, it is Elio who initiates by making the move and doing the thing: a knowing look turns into a daring touch, which leads to a kiss—and many more. No longer a steady stream of dog day afternoons filled with listless activities, Elio’s summer ripens with peaks, valleys, and summits, surrendering to his heart’s longing.
“If Elio’s summer is the wallowing waters found in an imagined fountain of youth, then the hand that begins to slowly but surely stir those waves is the arrival of the all-American Oliver”
From this point on, Oliver’s habitually cavalier “later!” becomes no longer a throwaway during hasty departures but a literal encouragement for Elio to further explore. After some ostensible avoidance, Oliver promises to Elio a meet-up at midnight: an hour of mystery that’s been culturally and historically fraught with anticipation, anxiety, excitement, or some awe-inspiring amalgamation of all three. Their clandestine night, directed gorgeously with an eye for gentleness, is illuminated by a deep, dark blue, the kind of color that can only be found when the rest of the world has temporarily retired. For Oliver and Elio, this night is beautiful because no one else gets to see the other in this way. It is precious because the sun, which could not possibly hope to outshine the iridescence of their now consummated love, will soon arise, just as the summer will soon recede for autumn to set up its foreign play.
The surreptitious love scene is antithetical to Elio’s rendezvouses with Marzia, at one point literally dusty. With her, Elio rushes while still awaiting, manically glancing at his watch while trying to have sex as fast as humanly possible. When he lets Oliver hold him, feel him, see him, Elio takes it slow and allows room for underlying sadness: the most courageous way to love and be loved. Of course, their ending is near; but, right now, it is not yet here. Tonight, there are other things—things lasting less than a second, briefer than a blink of an eye—that are inescapably finite: a sigh, a tear, an instant of losing oneself. It is the openness of the chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet that allows the scene to absolutely echo this passage from Aciman’s work:
“From this moment on, I thought, from this moment on—I had, as I’d never before in my life, the distinct feeling of arriving somewhere very dear, of wanting this forever, of being me, me, me, me, and no one else, just me, of finding in each shiver that ran down my arms something totally alien and yet by no means unfamiliar, as if all this had been part of me all of my life and I’d misplaced it and he had helped me find it. The dream had been right—this was like coming home, like asking, Where have I been all my life? which was another way of asking, Where were you in my childhood, Oliver? which was yet another way of asking, What is life without this? which was why, in the end, it was I, and not he, who blurted out, not once, but many, many times, You’ll kill me if you stop.”
For many viewers (this review’s author included), it is Chalamet’s vulnerability that brings the most urgent vivacity to the story. Hammer’s performance as Oliver, effortlessly encompassing both the easiness of being playful and the earned self-assurance that comes from years of emotional experience, is buoyed by Chalamet’s ability to stop, to look, and to listen. Really listen. The taking that validates the giving. Chalamet’s ebb complements Stuhlbarg’s flow during one of the most engrossing and affecting one-on-one conversations on the big screen from this decade: father says to son, “Before you know it, your heart is worn out, and as for our bodies, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.” Mr. Perlman then reveals how, many years ago, he did not go after the apple of his eye the way his son so dauntlessly did with such prodigious determination. Stuhlbarg’s monologue never veers close to a pity party; it is, rather, a selfless celebration of his son’s summer romance, and what that the end of this affair might and will certainly mean moving forward, the expected moments of gratitude and the anticipated sleepless nights filled with devastation and all. Do not be afraid or even ashamed of it, his father urges. Understand that these feelings are the most affirming thing, even with the aloneness that accompanies them.
“Hammer’s performance… is buoyed by Chalamet’s ability to stop, to look, and to listen. Really listen. The taking that validates the giving.”
With James Ivory’s Oscar-winning screenplay that embraces acceptance—as well as a stellar soundtrack that calls for one to embrace the simple, pure, fleetingly perfect pleasures and sorrows that life has to offer—Call Me By Your Name demands the viewer to be present and to stay in the now. The film’s mesmerizing final minutes, perhaps only made possible by some cosmic combination of mastery and magic, seem to be immune to the passage of time: after he learns that Oliver is now back home in America and is engaged to be married, we are left with an up-close-and-personal long shot of Elio… being. Simply being, and letting it be.
The credits begin to roll as he does nothing to prevent tears from forming. One of the most painful parts of growing up is letting yourself slow down, to feel things that can’t be laughed away or easily dismissed, to breathe in something you may not yet fully understand so that you can eventually breathe out some part of yourself that you may not feel fully ready to let go. As his parents set up Hanukkah dinner behind him, the parlor fire continues to crackle, illuminating Elio’s deep emotions that only continue to get set free, released back into the world whence they came. The permission to let thoughts come and go and to let the body do what it needs to do culminate into a triumph of the heart. What a victory it was to love without reserve; what a hope it is to keep letting those feelings be as freed, as heard, and as all-consuming as ever before.
Image: Sony Classics