October 25th 2017, I sat in a preview screening of Call Me By Your Name with three friends who had flown in from across the world to visit London. Having read the book a few months before the films release I was excited to see how the story would be adapted and by the end of the evening, among a swath of tears, I was beaming at how wonderful a job Luca Guadagnino did of bringing this story to life on the big screen.
From the first few scenes I felt a kinship to this film, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom captures the essence of a small town Mediterranean community so effortlessly that I couldn’t help but hearken back to my own summers in Cyprus, the way the air sizzles, the ethereal piano fusing seamlessly with sounds of nature. Midway through the film there is a scene where Elio and Oliver stops outside the home of an elderly Italian lady and ask for a glass of water. This entire exchange, from the set up, is so perfectly executed and representative of the not only the people but the time, 1983, the relaxed attitude to being able to comfortably approach someone and request something so simple brought an authenticity to the quieter moments of the film that drew me in.
These quiet moments are also where our lead actors shine, the glances across the riviera, the way Elio and Oliver danced around their relationship, or lack there of at the start of the film. How Elio toyed with Oliver when he played his Bach renditions of Lists classic, they were subtle, nuanced moments of flirtation, (and annoyance) that built the foundation of these characters relationship. Timothee Chalamet is going to make waves across Hollywood, his pining is a thing of wonder! Watching the scene where he and Hammer finally meet in their midnight rendezvous is one of those moments that cinema grants you everything you have wanted, Chalamet portrays Elios youthful lust and desire in a way that is so pure you think that he is genuinely experiencing it for the first time and we the audience are almost intruding on the experience because it is so intimate, so personal, from the shot of Oliver and Elio’s hands meeting on the balcony, the grainy film and muted colours form this singular moment of unparalleled love that required nothing gratuitous but the skill of a seasoned cinematographer and director. The scene cuts and we see Elio and Oliver in Elio’s old bedroom, cautious but wanting, in this scene his need for Oliver in one of he most grounded representations of lust I’ve seen on screen in years. Elio is nervous, but knows exactly what he wants in this moment, to be with Oliver, he climbs him, he latches onto him, they embrace, and the audience sighs in relief from their own want to see these characters finally meet in a passionate embrace. As the camera pans away from this moment, a private moment that is for Oliver and Elio and not the audience, we hear Elios exasperated breath whisper “Oliver”, it’s a sweetness and sincerity so rarely heard that the final shot of the nights sky appears almost dainty in response.
Two scenes in particular strike a very clear contrast with the softer visuals of the film. Futile Devices by Sufjan Stevens plays achingly over Elios heartbroken closeup we see the physical film reel appear on screen, altering reality and heightened the emphasis of the films dreamlike quality. The swathe of pale colours adds an ethereal filter to Elio, in this moment he is light, yearning, and longing to understand what is building within him. These subtle nuances to his character are what makes Chalamets portrayal so effective and so believable in first love. The second is the negative film reel that cuts rapidly across the frame, the film never clarifies exactly what we’re seeing alluding to the reel being either Elio’s memories that he reminisces over as he stands on the Balcony, or Oliver’s dream as he sleeps on the hotel bed. Both scenes cut sharply into the muted tones of the previous scene and strike the audience as deeply as what the characters are feeling on screen.
When Elio is laying on the sofa with his parents, his Mother, Annella, read a passage from Heptameron:
This is in German, but I’ll
translate: Ein gut aus sehender
junger Ritter ist wahnsinnig
verliebt in eine Prinzessin. Sie
auch ist in ihn verliebt.
“…A handsome young knight is
madly in love with a princess. She
too is in love with him…
…obwohl es so scheint, als sei
sie sich nicht vollig ihrer eigenen
…though she seems not to be
entirely aware of it.
Despite the friendship…
Freundschaft… that blossoms
between them, or perhaps because of
that very friendship, the young
knight finds himself so humbled and
speechless that he is totally
unable to bring up the subject of
his love. One day he asks the
princess point-blank: Ich bitte
euch ratet mir was besser ist…
reden oder sterben. ‘Is it better
to speak or die’.
Elios stare as he ponders the question mirroring his own emotions captures the beautiful chemistry between Mother and Son, a scene that also heavily implies Annella’s all seeing eye at just what is going on with her son.
If at this point Luca Guardignio hadn’t given you a reason to cry, Michael Stuhlberg will as he recites the infamous monologue by Professor Perlman word for word in what can only be described as the purest moment exchanged between a father and son on screen. An understanding, an acceptance, a regret and most importantly love. Stuhlberg was snubbed more than any actor I can remember in the past few years for his performance as Professor Perlman, what he brought to this role was nothing short of magic, a scene stealing energy that bounced off the walls of the set.
It’s a testament to the power of film when you have an actor as capable as Timothee sitting in front of a fire place reeling for 4 minutes from pain, to sadness to nostalgia to content and then happiness and not a single word is uttered. We watch tears fall, we watch Elio repair and we watch him understand that what he had was love in it’s purest of forms all the whilst his mother fixes the table for dinner, a subtle nod that life goes on, normality resumes and the final word of film mirrors it’s title, Annella turns to her son, she calls him, by his name, and Elio smiles.