I can unequivocally say this is the most masterful and beautiful film of the year.
Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Loews Boston Common.
By Peg Aloi
Set in 1983, director Luca Guadagnino’s love story calls to mind another romantic coming-of-age film set in northern Italy: Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1996 epic Stealing Beauty. Both films are located amid impossibly lush Tuscan landscapes: bucolic summer dioramas of rolling hills and meadows, pastel-colored village shops, swimming holes sparkling in the sun, shaded grottos where people eat and drink, lazily discussing cinema and politics, and orchards buzzing with cicadas and bursting with fruit. Both stories dramatize the experiences of their young protagonists while the camera’s gaze focuses on them as objects of desire. Both include romantic liaisons that culminate only after other misbegotten or half-hearted entanglements fall apart. Both narratives feature American visitors who become entranced by Italy, and whose emotional lives are irrevocably changed.
Stealing Beauty’s nineteen year old Lucy (Liv Tyler in a smashing debut performance), an American visiting Italian friends after her mother’s suicide, smokes weed furtively, writes snippets of verse in the bathtub, and is generally annoyed that the household knows about her state of virginity, which she is somewhat determined to lose. In Call Me by Your Name, Elio (the incandescently-talented Timothée Chalamet) is a lanky seventeen year old who speaks French. His American father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlgart) and Italian mother Annella (Amira Casar) are hosting a graduate student in his twenties named Oliver (Armie Hammer). Images of Etruscan nude sculptures set a heady tone in the opening credits; those who’ve seen Bertolucci’s film may recall the many clay and wood sculptures made by Donal McCann in his Tuscan studio.
The numerous visual and tonal similarities between the two films makes for what could be seen as a conscientious and loving homage, down to the smallest detail. (But then Guadagnino made a short documentary about Bertolucci.) For example, in Stealing Beauty, Lucy eats freshly–picked cherries upon her arrival (a somewhat crude symbol, perhaps). In Guadagnino’s arcadia, Oliver awakens after a jet-lagged night of deep sleep; he greedily slurps down boiled eggs from their cups and gulps down glasses of freshly-squeezed apricot nectar. The cherries are a visual pun; but the apricots (and later peaches) serve as an extended visual metaphor as well as a topic of conversation. Both films also rely upon humble and grandiose images of nature, as well as eclectic music tracks, to convey unseen actions and unspoken emotions, or to punctuate moments of epiphany or consummation. In Stealing Beauty, these cinematic touches occasionally struck a note of precious auteurism. But there is none of that self-consciousness in Call Me By Your Name. I can unequivocally say this is the most masterful and beautiful film of the year.
The visual details of the story’s physical surroundings are crucial to the film; they serve as signifiers of the affecting power of tactile memories. (Another Bertolucci technique; think of the opening shot in The Sheltering Sky, when Kit and Port emerge from behind a complex wooden structure in the desert.) The landscape provides the story’s emotional signposts: doorways, pools, forests, waterfalls, a sunny piazza where, separated by wrought iron gates around a WWI memorial statue, Elio and Oliver first speak, carefully and indirectly, about their feelings for one another. Their initial connection meanders along, the chatter tentative, drawing on their mutual fascination with the other’s talents and tastes, mainly in music. After Oliver compliments Elio’s guitar playing, Elio decides to show off, moving to the piano in order to play Bach in the style of Lizst. Oliver has a fixation on popular music; he is unable to stop himself from dancing whenever the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” is playing (the period details conjure up the 1980s nicely). In this complex courtship. the lovers’ interactions bely their feelings, but their awkward exchanges eventually give way to an almost telepathic connection, seen most engagingly in Chalamet’s guileless body language and transparent facial expressions. Could this performance be any better? It’s hard to see how.
Could this film be any better? The cinematography beguiles. The dialogue is natural yet artful. The cast is first rate in every way. You will even find yourself warming to what (at first) appears to be a somewhat wooden performance by Armie Hammer. Esther Garrel (daughter of filmmaker Philippe Garrel) has a sweet cameo as Elio’s erstwhile girlfriend Marzia. Amira Casar is subtly wonderful as Elio’s mother, her eyes taking in every nuance of the courtship. As the intellectual but affectionate father, Stuhlbarg gives a heartrending performance, He is moved by his son’s love affair and and speaks to Elio at length about it. There is a rhetorical capstone near the end of Stealing Beauty as well, when Lucy learns the delicate truth of her father’s identity. But whereas Lucy receives a secret meant for her ears alone, Elio’s father hands down worldly wisdom to Elio, who is world-weary about this recent formative relationship. His attitude may feel familiar to older viewers: as one friend pointed out to me, in 1983 young gay men often felt they could not freely follow their hearts. They often chose to lead lives that went against their grain. But the captivating Call Me By Your Name is far more concerned with the luminous present than with a shadowy future.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.