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London Film Festival Review: Call Me By Your Name – “An emotional masterpiece”

Some films are meant to haunt viewers for days, begging to be seen again in order to peel the multiple layers of their narrative nuances and thematic symbolism or to simply relish an emotional journey they’ve deeply related to. It’s the kind of viewing experience I’ve had before but never to the goosebumps-inducing heights Call Me By Your Name took me on. Everything you might’ve heard so far about this sweeping, languid romance set during an idyllic Italian summer in 1983 is absolutely true. If anything, what has been said ever since its Sundance Film Festival world premiere back in January can’t fully do justice to the way audiences are bound to feel when leaving the cinema.

Call Me By Your Name is an emotional masterpiece with a humbling level of understanding and empathy towards its characters, their trials and tribulations and the human condition as a whole. Although certain preconceived notions may drive some viewers to label the homosexual relationship at the core of the story as niche cinema, they’ll soon be proven wrong and left speechless, realising that director Luca Guadagnino and his brilliant cast have masterfully told a universal story about first love which transcends any possible label.

Elio Pearlman (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17 years old boy spending yet another beautiful summer in an idyllic villa somewhere in Northern Italy. Son of an American father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and an Italian mother (Amira Casar), both overly cultured in the liberal arts, he passes the time reading, transcribing music, practising the piano and the guitar and of course swimming and wandering the bucolic countryside.

The film goes straight into its inciting incident. Every summer Mr. Pearlman – an esteemed historian – welcomes a university student as an intern to take under his wing and help with their thesis. In the opening scene, Elio wakes up one morning upon the arrival of that year’s special guest, Oliver (Armie Hammer) a hunky-looking American in his mid-twenties, who immediately impacts our protagonist with his overly confident and laid-back manners.

Elio offers to show him around and takes him on bicycles rides across the surrounding countryside, villages and the little nearing town of Crema, the only point of contact with the outside world. For the most part, in fact, it feels like these characters are withdrawn into another dimension that feels suspended in time. Being born and raised in Sicily in the 80s, I can attest to the filmmakers’ ability to capture that atmosphere of sun-drenched, lazy Italian summers spent swimming, playing, reading, eating delicious food whilst wearing nothing more than a bathing suit for most of the day.

Although since the opening scene – where she wakes up in his bedroom – Marzia (Esther Garrel) is constantly gravitating around Elio, we soon realise that our protagonist is still a virgin fully caught up in relentless hormonal storms, who is captivated by Oliver upon the guest’s very arrival. The film, however, doesn’t play around with identity crisis about Elio’s sexuality. The boy is clearly attracted to the American guest and when he experiments with Marzia, whom he genuinely likes, is more of a sublimation of what he thinks he can’t have with Oliver.

The handsome devil in fact plays coy. He’s naturally a charming guy everyone immediately likes and calls “movie star”, yet he acts nonchalantly indifferent towards Elio – or does he? The circumspection the two characters adopt when exploring their own feelings and each other’s is obviously dictated by the context and the period. However, it’s amazing to realise their doubts and concerns are actually related to their own psyche and emotions rather than the environment’s pressure.

That’s exactly the beauty and the almost revolutionary approach of Call Me By Your Name to the nature of Elio and Oliver’s relationship: there are no antagonistic forces at play trying to disrupt a potentially controversial romance for that time. Elio’s parents are clearly supportive of their son experiencing life to the fullest and always push him to get himself out there. In spite of that, things develop at a slow-burning pace as Elio and Oliver get tangled up in a sort of cat-and-mouse chase of mutual discovery and exploration, which is typical and universal when we deal with a new crush we have no idea whether or not reciprocates our feelings.

Once things finally bloom though, the emotional impact is devastatingly intense, authentic and extremely sensual. Director Luca Guadagnino has declared his intention to pay homage to his cinematic fathers Renoir, Rivette, Rohmer and Bertolucci and it shows. The film oozes with classy eroticism and whenever it hits the most explicit sexual notes, it does so tastefully and in a way that effectively moves the story forward. Every sexual moment is meticulously crafted to develop the relationship these two lovers have embarked upon. If there’s an antagonist to be found, that’s actually time and specifically the limited amount they have together. Soon enough Elio is in fact shaken by the thought of Oliver leaving soon and that opens the Pandora’s box of emotional distress for both parties.

Based on Adre Aciman’s 2007 cult novel of the same name and written for the screen by legendary filmmaker James Ivory (The Remains Of The Day) who was initially attached to direct as well, the film is a fine work of adaptation. The novel is built around adult Elio reminiscing about that life-changing summer and how it affected the rest of his life, taking us all the way down to a time in their lives when these lovers are bound to meet again. It’s a powerful narrative yet a rather internalized one that plays out within the character’s mind.

The filmmakers knew that in order to make things cinematic, they had to externalize those feelings in visual fashion and they accomplish that brilliantly. If anything, upon taking the directing reigns, Guadagnino has decided to completely eliminate any trace of voice-over narrative from Elio that Ivory’s original script used. It’s a great choice that optimizes the storytelling for such a different medium. And the same goes for Ivory’s focus on that summer only rather than including the flash forward which would’ve altered the impact of the film’s epilogue.

Half of a filmmaker’s job is casting and Guadagnino has hit the jackpot here, including the supporting players. The amazing and underrated Michael Stuhlbarg (whose brilliant work includes, among others, the latest season of Fargo) is a revelation as Elio’s father with a scene-stealing moment in the film’s final act, which alone should grant him an Oscar nomination. But if there were any justice when it comes to awards season, both Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer deserve the Academy’s recognition – for starters due to their incredible chemistry, the heights of which you’ll rarely find on screen between two actors.

Hammer makes Oliver leap off the pages of Aciman’s novel, embodying the character’s flirty magnetism to a tee. He’s dreamy, confident and funny but also vulnerable beneath it all. Whereas Chalamet – just like Elio – displays maturity beyond his years and equally nails the car-free nature and the over-emotional intensity of being a teenager. When Guadagnino brilliantly puts the camera on the young actor’s face for the film’s closing credits, Chalamet breaks your heart as Elio stares into the fireplace, processing his emotional state over the notes of Sufjan Stevens. When you can convey so much without even saying a word, what else do you need to prove you’ve got it?

Speaking of Sufjan Stevens, what an inspired musical choice that was on the director’s behalf. The dream-like quality of the American singer-songwriter’s music couldn’t have been a better fit to paint the film’s emotional palette and despite being biased as a long time fan, the two original songs he’s written for the film are heart-wrenchingly perfect and perfectly placed by the filmmakers. It’s a further testament to the genuine beauty of a piece of filmmaking that’s bound to win over even the most cynical and sceptic viewers. Rarely a film has transported me this faithfully to a time and place I’m very familiar with, capturing feelings I’ve experienced so vividly and making me want to remain there, captive in a vacuum where fiction meets reality in a painfully yet beautifully nostalgic way.

Call Me By Your Name was the Love Gala at the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and is released in UK cinemas on October 27th.

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