Call Me By Your Name, an erotic triumph - by Anthony Lane, The New Yorker (reposting)
“Call Me by Your Name”: An Erotic Triumph Luca Guadagnino’s latest film is emotionally acute and overwhelmingly sensual. By Anthony Lane - The New Yorker
The new film by Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name,” begins in the summer of 1983, in a place so enchanted, with its bright green gardens, that it belongs in a fairy tale. The location, the opening credits tell us, is “Somewhere in Northern Italy.” Such vagueness is deliberate: the point of a paradise is that it could exist anywhere but that, once you reach the place, it brims with details so precise in their intensity that you never forget them. Thus it is that a young American named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives, dopey with jet lag, at the house of Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his Italian wife, Annella (Amira Casar), whose custom is to spend their summers there and also to return for Hanukkah. (Like them, Oliver is Jewish; a closeup shows a Star of David hanging from a chain around his neck.) The Professor, an American expert in classical archeology, requires an annual assistant, and Oliver is this year’s choice. “We’ll have to put up with him for six long weeks,” Annella says, with a sigh. Not long enough, as it turns out. You can pack a whole lifetime into six weeks.
The first words of the film are “The usurper.” They are uttered by the Perlmans’ only child—their son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who is seventeen. He stands at an upstairs window with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel) and watches Oliver below, fearful that the American may break the reigning peace. The Professor is more welcoming, and he proposes a kind of free trade, both spatial and emotional, that will resound throughout. “Our home is your home,” he says to Oliver. “My room is your room,” Elio adds, a few seconds later, like an echo. He has moved into the adjoining room for the duration of Oliver’s stay, and they must share a bathroom. The sharing will deepen, from handshakes to confidences, and from cigarettes to kisses and other mouthly charms, concluding in the most profound exchange of all, whispered from a few inches’ distance and proclaimed in the title of the movie.
“Call Me by Your Name” is, among other things, an exercise in polyglottery, and Elio chats to his parents and friends in an easy blend of English, French, and Italian, sometimes sliding between tongues in the course of a single conversation. (Who would guess that a household, no less than a city, can be a melting pot?) His father and Oliver enjoy a clash of wits about the twisted root of the word “apricot,” tracing it through Arabic, Latin, and Greek, and mentioning that one branch leads to the word “precocious”—a nod to Elio, who listens to them with half a smile. He is a prodigy, voraciously bookish, who plays Bach al fresco on the guitar and then inside on the piano, in the manner of Liszt and of Busoni, with Oliver standing in the background, contrapposto, with the elegant tilt of a statue, drinking in the sound and the skill. “Is there anything you don’t know?” he asks, after Elio has told him about an obscure, bloody battle of the First World War.
Prodigies can be a pain, onscreen and off, and Elio—fevered with boyish uncertainties and thrills, though no longer a boy, and already rich in adult accomplishments, yet barely a man—should be an impossible role. Somehow, as if by magic, Chalamet makes it work, and you can’t imagine how the film could breathe without him. His expression is sharp and inquisitive, but cream-pale and woundable, too, and saved from solemnity by the grace of good humor; when Oliver says that he has to take care of some business, Elio retorts by impersonating him to his face. Chalamet is quite something, but Hammer is a match for him, as he needs to be, if the characters’ passions are to be believed. Elio is taken aback, at the start, by Oliver’s swagger—the hesitant youth, steeped in Europe, confronted with can-do American chops. Hammer doesn’t strut, but his every action, be it dismounting a bicycle, draining a glass of juice (apricot, of course), slinging a backpack over his shoulder, rolling sideways into a pool, or demolishing a boiled egg at breakfast until it’s a welter of spilled yolk suggests a person almost aggressively at home in his own body, and thus in the larger world. Hence the abrupt note that he sends to Elio: “Grow up. See you at midnight.”
You could, I suppose, regard Oliver as the incarnation of soft power. Certainly, his handsomeness is so extreme that the camera tends to be angled up at him, as if at one of the ancient bronze deities over which the Professor enthuses. When Oliver wades in a cold stream one glorious day, you stare at him and think, My God, he is a god. And yet, as he and Elio lounge on sun-warmed grass, it’s Oliver who seems unmanned, and it’s Elio who lays a purposeful hand directly on Oliver’s crotch. Now one, now the other appears the more carnally confident of the two. They take a while to find parity and poise, but, once they do, they are inextricable, rendered equal by ardor; the first shot of them, at dawn, after they sleep together, is of limbs so entangled that we can’t tell whose are whose. As for their parting, it is wordless. They look at one another and just nod, as if to say, Yes, that was right. That was how it is meant to be.
The screenplay of “Call Me by Your Name,” adapted from André Aciman’s novel of the same title, is by James Ivory. He has done a remarkable job, paring away pasts and futures, and leaving us with an overwhelming surge of now. On the page, events are recounted, in the first person, by an older Elio, gazing backward, but Chalamet’s Elio lacks the gift of hindsight. In any case, why is it a gift? Who wouldn’t prefer to be in the thick of love? The book is a mature and thoughtful vintage; in the film, we’re still picking the grapes.
It’s tempting to speculate how Ivory, who, as the director of “A Room with a View” (1985) and of “Maurice” (1987), showed his mastery of Italian settings and of same-sex romance, might have fared at the helm of the new film. The rhythm, I suspect, would have been more languorous, as if the weather had seeped into people’s lazy bones, whereas Guadagnino, an instinctive modernist, is more incisive. He and his longtime editor, Walter Fasano, keep cutting short the transports of delight; the lovers pedal away from us, on bikes, to the lovely strains of Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” only for the scene to hit the brakes. “Call Me by Your Name” is suffused with heat, and piled high with fine food, but it isn’t a nice movie; you see it not to unwind but to be wound up—to be unrelaxed by the force with which rapture strikes. There is even a gratifying cameo by a peach, which proves useful in an erotic emergency, and merits an Academy Award for Best Supporting Fruit.
The film’s release could not be more propitious. So assailed are we by reports of harmful pleasures, and of the coercive male will being imposed through lust, that it comes as a relief to be reminded, in such style, of consensual joy. “I don’t want either of us to pay for this,” Oliver says. By falling for each other, he and Elio tumble not into error, still less into sin, but into a sort of delirious concord, which may explain why Elio’s parents, far from disapproving, bestow their tacit blessing on the pact. More unusual still is that the movie steers away from the politics of sexuality. Elio makes love to Marzia, on a dusty mattress, in a loft like an old dovecote, only hours before he meets with Oliver at midnight, but you don’t think, Oh, Elio’s having straight sex, followed by gay sex, and therefore we must rank him as bi-curious. Rather, you are curious about him and his paramours as individuals—these particular bodies, with these hungry souls, at these ravening moments in their lives. Desire is passed around the movie like a dish, and the characters are invited to help themselves, each to his or her own taste. Maybe a true love story (and when did you last see one of those?) has no time for types.
Not that anything endures. Late in the film, the Professor sits with his son on a couch, smokes, and talks of what has occurred. We expect condescension, instead of which we hear a confession. “I envy you,” he tells Elio, adding, “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty.” He once came near, he admits, to having what Elio and Oliver had, but something stood in the way, and he advises his child to seize the day, including the pain that the day brings, while he is still young: “Before you know it, your heart is worn out.” Much of this long speech is taken from Aciman’s novel, but Stuhlbarg delivers it beautifully, with great humility, tapping his cigarette. After which, it seems only natural that so rich a movie should close with somebody weeping, beside a winter fire. The shot lasts for minutes, as did the final shot of Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” (2005), but Haneke wanted to stoke our paranoia and our dread, while Guadagnino wants us to reflect, at our leisure, on love: on what a feast it can be, on how it turns with the seasons, and on why it ends in tears.