When discussing works of art, nothing is truly “perfect,” but plenty of works come close. Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” is one of those films. Audiences are greeted with one of the warmest, most moving and heartbreaking films of the year. Adapted from Andre Aciman’s acclaimed debut novel, it is a film that lives and breathes through the energy of romance and the emotional hurricane of youth.
A title card reads: “Somewhere in Northern Italy, 1983.” Seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is staying at the summer home of his two parents — his father, a classics scholar (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his mother, a translator (Amira Casar). Elio passes the time partying, loafing around town and chasing after his old friend Marzia (Esther Garrell) until a new visitor arrives. Dr. Perlman brings on a research assistant every summer, this time inviting the handsome, 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) to stay at the family villa. Elio and Oliver, who bunk in adjacent rooms, barely interact at first. As each of the young men soaks up the summer sun, furtive glances lead to closer bonds, in particular over their shared Jewish heritage. Soon enough, they enter into a passionate relationship, exploring their sexualities in secrecy as the summer threatens to draw to a close.
Bookending the film are two of the strongest credit sequences in recent years. The opening, set to John Adams’ “Hallelujah Junction,” places the film’s strikingly yellow, handwritten text against antique photographs of classical sculpture — ideals of male bodies that, as Dr. Perlman says, “dare you to desire them.” The ending, an all-timer of an emotional gut punch, frames the camera on Elio’s face in an extreme close-up, holding on his gaze for the entirety of the credits and then some more. Each scene is an important moment within the film’s narrative and thematic trajectories, serving as a thesis and conclusion to its sensuous portrait of young love.
Guadagnino’s directorial skills are on their most subtle display yet with “Call Me by Your Name.” His previous films, “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” are characterized by their edgy, bombastic styles, qualities that Guadagnino completely strips away with his work here. He creates the film’s unbearably tense, sexy atmosphere through quiet moments — glances, touches, flirtations — until the couple consummates their relationship. Even here Guadagnino shows restraint, leaving most of the sex to the viewer’s imagination, only feeding them the slightest details. While an explicit portrayal of homosexuality is still sorely missing in American cinema, the decision to keep things mostly under wraps only makes sense with the film’s approach, one that savors how our bodies interact with our senses in the slightest of ways. But Aciman’s notorious — and symbolically explosive — peach scene makes the cut, giving the audience a “wow” moment with which to leave the cinema. Adding a sense of subdued classicism into the mix is writer James Ivory, the legendary cofounder of Merchant Ivory Productions, whose style complements Guadagnino’s defiant modernism.
The craft of the film is remarkable in its ability to capture Elio’s and Oliver’s feelings. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the longtime cinematographer of Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, drenches the immaculate images in sunlight — a large amount of which was artificially created due to historic rains during the film’s shoot. Walter Fasano’s editing is subtly masterful, seamlessly layering on feeling after feeling. Guadagnino also places a heavy emphasis on food and music, two of life’s most sensual pleasures, to explore the relationship.
Music, in particular, is crucial to the film. A varied selection of existing classical pieces forms the basis of the soundtrack, along with a few needle drops — most notably The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” in a dance scene for the ages. But perhaps the film’s most important contributor is singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Already one of the most talented artists in the music scene today, Stevens was approached to be the film’s de-facto narrator through his songs. Stevens went above and beyond the call, re-recording his song “Futile Devices” and writing two new singles: “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon.” Both pieces stand among his greatest work, arriving at crucial moments in the narrative and perfectly complementing the emotions on screen.
Also central to the film’s success is the cast. Chalamet, at only 20 years old, gives one of the decade’s greatest lead performances as Elio, while Hammer turns in the best work of his career as Oliver. The two have magnetic amounts of chemistry, creating a devastatingly beautiful love story. Another standout is Stuhlbarg as Dr. Perlman, whose heartfelt monologue prior to the film’s coda is one of the most masterful examples of its craft — along with being the kind of talk everyone would want from a father.
There is perhaps no topic that lends itself to cinema more than romance, especially young love. It binds the personal experiences of all audiences together, making it an artistic force to be reckoned with. “Call Me by Your Name” is such an extraordinary film because of its deep empathy and appreciation of beauty, along with its molding of classical storytelling and technique with an unfortunately rare, honest look at queer lives and relationships. Simply, it’s a quietly revolutionary work of art.