Unpeeling Pain in Call Me by Your Name


A late take on the movie in a pre-Oscars review series.



In Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-nominated picture Call Me by Your Name, based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman and adapted for the screen by James Ivory, the summer of 1983 unravels in languidly peeled layers, as bibliophile and musical prodigy teenager Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) spends time with his family on their rustic estate in a mystical “Somewhere in Northern Italy.” Guadagnino gives the scenes a both gritty and surreal quality; the landscapes boast lurid colors – Oliver’s green swimming shorts, the grimy and yellow inside of a peach – that are awash in a translucent haze, affecting the beauty of a faded photograph or dreamy Norman Rockwell illustrations of boys flushed in the summer heat. Elio’s brilliant Archaeology professor of a father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his similarly cerebral, doting but permissive mother (Amira Casar) invite Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student in his twenties, classically handsome with his American swagger, to stay with the family for the summer as Mr. Perlman’s assistant.


In this sumptuous, sheltered universe, Guadagnino draws us into Elio and Oliver’s romance through indirection. It’s a film about the choreography of speaking and withholding. Elio and Oliver complement each other from the beginning, in the way Oliver’s voice is hard and rounded, as if spoken underwater, and Elio’s is more ragged and boyish. And later, Oliver is tentative in his advances, while Elio, like a shy puppy, surprises with mischievously effusive affection. Elio moves between Italian, French, and English but is also sick and silent with desire: the camera captures the droopiness and furtive eagerness of his gaze as he watches Oliver bounce with abandon on the dance floor. We see Elio recoil from Oliver’s brotherly but encoded (as we later learn) advance. When Elio finally reveals his feelings for Oliver, he does so most obliquely, admitting to knowing little “about the things that matter.” Elio checks his watch after he sleeps with his girlfriend, counting down to his first scheduled tryst with Oliver. Chalamet amazingly reconciles contradictions in his intellectually formidable and familiarly naive Elio. Watch the way he moves, with this bumbling but somehow lissome grace as he saunters backwards into the sand after apologizing to Oliver for his barbed coldness. And then there is the way Chalamet scrunches up his body to show a normally guarded Elio visibly unarmed as he cradles the phone, half a year later, listening to Oliver reveal that he’s engaged.


In my favorite scene, Elio and Oliver sit loosely intertwined, on the balcony of the villa after spending their first night together. Elio laments the time they lost by dodging each other, protecting their feelings. Oliver insists that he gave Elio a sign, and Elio does that thing with his knuckles, beating them on Oliver’s chest, and they flirt in the moonlight. These gestures codify into a tender sensory language between them that Guadagnino doesn’t force into overuse. When Elio and Oliver say goodbye, they only hug, Oliver handling Elio easily with his big arms, Elio lightly drumming his shoulder. Simple but not anticlimactic, the scene recalls all the moments that they folded into each other, knowing that their time would be up, afraid that they would slip from each other’s hands. Then Professor Perlman’s closing monologue will probably bring you to tears. He consoles and cautions his son: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty…and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing, so as not to feel anything…what a waste.” And nothing about this film, not even the times a frustrated Elio spends dozing off in the sun, was a waste. And in the few minutes the camera trains on Elio’s face as he stares wrenchingly into the fireplace, I wish fiercely that he would devote the rest of his life to feeling.


Claire Park (claire_park@college.harvard.edu) is still swooning and is rooting for Timothée Chalamet’s Oscar win.