‘Call Me By Your Name’: on the unforgiving pain of first love
Set against the backdrop of a charming town ‘somewhere in northern Italy,’ Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s newest film Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a romance that buds over a period of six weeks in the summer of 1983 between Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious, 17-year-old musical prodigy and bookworm; and Oliver (Armie Hammer), an arrogant and confident graduate student helping Elio’s father, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), with his academic work.
But to summarise it as just that is an insult to what the film and its source material — a 2007 book of the same name by Andre Aciman — intended. Unlike most queer romance films, the relationship’s constraints don’t come from social conflict, internal or external — the struggle with sexuality, the struggle with what people think of one’s sexuality, and the struggle of surviving against both. Instead, these all take a back seat to what the film is truly about: accepting the labours of (first) love and the triumphantly destructive pain that comes with it. And in doing so, Guadagnino takes a significant step towards truly normalising queer relationships, where the film transcends its queer element and becomes a story about the humanity of love.
And if ever there was a word to describe the performance of its young lead, Chalamet, it is that: human. In Elio, we are introduced to a boy coming into his sexuality, letting go of everything that holds him back, and carrying his heart on his sleeves in favour of the fleeting happiness he’d long aspired to. He volunteers himself into a relationship with a clear ending — one he is well aware of — but is unable to keep himself from surrendering to it. In his confliction and struggle to appear strong, he exudes a spirit of yearning so innocently woven with desire and need that the result is a devastating portrait of human nature, crafted with the echoes of a broken heart. Dancing between faux, childlike confidence, a deeply moving sense of attachment, and the dread of finality, Chalamet’s performance underscores what it means to be unapologetically human. It is an uncontested turn, deserving of every accolade — a revelation by any measure.
Opposite Chalamet is Armie Hammer, whose Oliver shines with a subtlety not unlike that of the statues Mr. Perlman speaks of, commenting on their “ageless ambiguity”. So nonchalant in his mannerisms he could be mistaken for emotionless, Hammer’s Oliver commands the (absolutely stunning) spaces he is in with confidence, demanding — to the dismay of Elio and therefore the viewer — the attention of all those around him. But it is that very nonchalance that, at times, plays against him. Chalamet’s portrayal of Elio is so emotionally complex that it eclipses, even challenges, the object of his obsession and the authenticity with which the latter is portrayed.
The story unfolds from Elio’s perspective and the camera places the viewer in his point of view, allowing for a much more personal connection to the character. Even more, however, it is in his reactions, physical and emotional, that the viewer truly gets to know him. Oliver, on the other hand, is not offered the same luxury. As intense and sensual as the romance between the two is, there seems to be an inkling of space between Elio and Oliver that never gets resolved, and it is within the walls of that space — which Hammer is never quite able to tear down — that Oliver exists.
Much of this has to do with how the romance is introduced to the viewer. In a rather disjointed sequence of scenes, and for reasons that seem to stem from lust above anything else, Elio is transfixed by Oliver early on, but the bond the two share as the film progresses is sometimes overstated and not very substantiated. The viewer is almost told that the two are in love as opposed to seeing it happen naturally and on a more personal level. While the point is not so much the romance itself, but what there is to see in it, this takes away from an essential part of the film.
“Is it better to speak or to die?” That is the question at the heart of Call Me By Your Name. Perhaps the deepest wounds that are inflicted on us are those we incur as young adults, not because of singular events that happen or specific experiences, but because of how these instances shape what is to come: how we react to things, what we are capable of feeling, what doesn’t scare us, and what does.
The film culminates in an arresting scene in which Michael Stuhlbarg so elegantly and eloquently delivers a monologue about the realities of love and pain: “we rip so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster…but to make ourselves feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste.” It is a triumph of emotion that evokes a sense of humility so unparalleled I would venture, with vigour, to call it one of the best scenes ever filmed.
Coloured with the gorgeous music of Sufjan Stevens (whose Mystery of Lovecould not be more perfect an emblem for the film), the seamless aesthetic of the setting, and the sensual toxicity of both the craftsmanship behind the film and the relationship between its protagonists, Call Me By Your Name is a masterclass in engaging the senses in a love story that hits so close to home, it’s impossible not to relate to.
Somewhere in the long, hot summer days of 1983, Elio discovers what it means to fall in love and the importance of feeling everything that comes with it. And in doing so, he comes alive in more ways than one, never to be the same again.
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