“‘Cause I wanted you to know”
It wasn’t until three-quarters of the way through Luca Guadagnino‘s Call Me By Your Name that I finally began to understand the almost universal praise bestowed upon it since debuting at Sundance. Up until then it merely felt like a familiar coming-of-age film wherein the teenager in question was embracing his sexuality with the help of both a young woman his age and man a ten years older. The awkwardness, brazenness, and desire were all there along with the urge to never stop once he experienced how it all felt. Both relationships were secretive, both passionate above all else. And then the inevitable day when the older gentleman was about to leave came. The sorrow and emotion born powerfully transforms the familiar into the wholly unique.
There’s been a lot of talk about the script and its many forms, but I’m not certain any previous iteration could have been better than what Guadagnino used to deliver what he has. The project has been in development since André Aciman‘s novel was still a galley edition and cinema legend James Ivoryhas been attached pretty much since then. The author commended the screenwriter’s initial draft for its honesty, faithfulness, and even improvement, but Guadagnino made some changes regardless once his role as local scout evolved to the director’s chair. His main alteration was to remove the nudity for what he says were production and financial purposes. And while that makes sense (R is more commercially viable than NC-17), I’d argue its merits artistically too.
Letting the sex scenes—heterosexual and homosexual alike—remain graphic would augment the physical act and let it overpower the whole. While this works for checkout line lust and boundary-pushing comedies, however, it would ultimately subvert the impact of its role in such a nuanced and sensitive adolescent metamorphosis as this. Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) story as it’s shown onscreen uses his sexual awakening as a doorway towards love rather than hunger. We see the difference in his interactions with Marzia (Esther Garrel) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) because he lights up upon seeing the former and falls sullenly quiet whenever the latter is absent. He covets his friend because a release is available and socially accepted. He longs for his father’s assistant because he’s all that’s on his mind.
The courtship is therefore as much an adventure as the consummation. We watch jealousies and anger rule Elio’s actions whether his fascination in Oliver causing him to ignore Marzia’s obvious flirtations or his eventual advances towards her commencing in direct correlation with the former’s seemingly cold dismissal. Add the American’s physical contact as a result of his confidence, familiarity, and demeanor and it’s easy to see the tug of war raging within the teen. He fights the casual touch of this man out of knee-jerk reaction. He gravitates towards Marzia’s interest as much to flaunt it in Oliver’s eyesight as overcompensate for “impure” urges. Elio is a veritable ball of hormones and nerves growing bolder and uninhibited with each orgasm until he finds himself seducing the forbidden fruit.
So there’s more than meets the eye in those familiar beginnings after all. There’s the expository maturation of a boy letting his true feelings out to play and the metaphorical appetite for all things exotic and sweet on behalf of the foreigner. The pattern and result may be similar to what we’ve seen before, but the power of the bond forming is different. This is what kept me invested when I found myself hoping something more would happen. The way in which Oliver pushes back and quells his own desire to not upset the professional relationship he’s come to fulfill with Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is refreshing and honest; how he finds himself unable to resist Elio’s overt advances later more authentic than generic love at first sight.
Whereas Elio and Marzia’s coupling has all the appearances of romance, it’s simply too visible and easy. The drama arrives in the fearful glances when either Elio or Oliver walks away. That sense that they’ve screwed up and may never reclaim what they haven’t yet experienced hits you like a simple kiss goodbye until later never could. There’s danger in those looks about getting caught and also missing the opportunity to act. We see the rote superficiality of puppy love even if Elio and Marzia don’t just as we acknowledge the depths of feeling between Elio and Oliver as they fight to suppress it. And when they do finally act, the compassion and adoration is more palpable as a result. They act because control has disappeared.
A lot of this comes in hindsight and the ability to reread scenes remembered from earlier. Only once I understood what it was Elio and Oliver are sharing could I see the important steps to get there. This is what makes Ivory’s (and Aciman’s) story so potent: it possesses so much detail that context cannot help but lend different readings at different times. A barbed joke like many others Oliver throws meeting a tear-streaked response of pure emotion rather than a return volley of sarcastic wit means Elio is gone. And when the first puts the second in his arms to comfort rather than mock we know that love is mutual. But as wonderfully profound as this is, loss is unavoidable. Oliver’s return home is absolute.
Here’s where Call Me By Your Name becomes the masterpiece of its pedigree. Here’s when we see these characters stripped of their façades and victims to their pain. It’s not just lovers coping with distance, however. It’s also a father inspiring with heartfelt words young closeted men and women can still only imagine as the response their parents would give to their reality. Where so many Hollywood-ized “gay” stories end on a positive note of rebirth and optimism, Guadagnino is helming a love story unafraid to highlight the suffering one always contains. Love is only able to live up to its name if its absence rips out your heart to the point of numbing yourself from ever risking such pure emotion again. Love isn’t sex. Love is pain.
This melancholy is something of a calling card of Guadagnino’s and so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn this film is an unofficial trilogy capper of “desire” alongside his I Am Love and A Bigger Splash. It’s much calmer than those, but no less potent or beautiful to behold. This one speaks in its silence and impacts through its stolen glances. It showcases a scene-stealing MVP of a father (Stuhlbarg will warm your soul) and two magnificent lead turns dabbling in as much vulnerability as arrogance thanks to Chalamet and Hammer. They transcend sexuality with universal magnetism and truth regardless of how brief this indelible six weeks together proves. They let love rule above sense, the present above the future. Who are we to deny our hearts life?
Rating: R | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: November 24th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Luca Guadagnino
Writer(s): James Ivory / André Aciman (novel)