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Guadagnino and Ivory Stir Passions and Create Pure Relationship Magic

by Cyrus Cassells

Jun 9, 2018 | Culture, Movies

Illustration by 
Topher McCulloch

Nobody writes better about the obsessive nature of desire, about head-over-heels infatuation, than Egyptian expat André Aciman. I savored his latest book, Enigma Variations—about a bisexual man’s history of amorous escapades—happily absorbed through a mid-March blizzard. It seemed against the odds that a movie could do justice to Aciman’s gorgeous, neo-Proustian prose, but director Luca Guadagnino, an innate sensualist and avid documenter of Italian life, in adapting Aciman’s memorable first novel, Call Me by Your Name, has triumphed where others might have failed.

Guadagnino is a sumptuous filmmaker, with a knack for conjuring intimacy on-screen. His previous film, A Bigger Splash, was set on a shimmering Sicilian island, the lair of a much-lauded rock diva, a contemporary goddess recovering from throat surgery, and the rapport between the charismatic singer (Guadagnino’s on-call muse, Tilda Swinton) and her rugged lover (played by popular Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) was conspicuously earthy and sexy. Guadagnino consistently stirs up pure relationship magic, skirting more overt romantic gestures in favor of lyric moments that feel kinetic, fresh, and spontaneously emotional and erotic: He’s a wizard at conveying sensuality with offhand grace and concision.

The collaboration of Aciman (who has a delightful cameo in the film), veteran screenwriter and sterling director James Ivory, and Guadagnino is a masterly and satisfying one: In tandem, they’ve fashioned an indelible ode to questing youth and feet-first exploration—to the roller-coaster rush of first love. Ivory, who at 89 became the oldest Oscar-winner ever for his supple screenplay, takes salient elements of the first pages of Aciman’s lapidary prose and inserts them, with acrobatic assurance and savvy, throughout the film.

Set in 1983 in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, in Crema, Guadagnino’s hometown, Call Me by Your Name details the romantic match-burst between Elio Perlman, the prehensile son of a devoted academic and archeologist, and Oliver, a towering American graduate student come to bolster the professor’s research. Like any talented adolescent, Elio—a burgeoning musician (and polyglot teen prodigy) with his ubiquitous books and scores—is animated, restless, and, as he says “waiting for summer to end”: boredom’s sworn enemy.

Guadagnino consistently stirs up pure relationship magic, skirting more overt romantic gestures in favor of lyric moments that feel kinetic, fresh, and spontaneously emotional and erotic

We’re in this precocious boy’s refined and summery world, brimming with art and classical music, and Oliver is a dashing guest and an elusive bridegroom. The key to Armie Hammer’s agile performance is how he allows the attracted but wary Oliver to become (after yielding to Elio’s erotic yen to “know about the things that matter” and to his own hard-to-shove-down longing) a luminous, celebratory being. We see him, mostly from Elio’s point of view—as dauntingly adult, unreachable, dismissive, even arrogant (Oliver has a comically brisk way of saying “later”), but when the two young Jewish men, seven years apart, set aside their intricate circling, the already sensuous movie shifts into the realm of the ecstatic. As in Truffaut’s invigorating Jules and Jim, the movie’s everyday incidents—the summer bike rides and small joys the new-minted lovers share—acquire a sheen of stirring clarity and buoyancy, an everlasting quality: in an impromptu, richly emblematic moment, Elio declares a sudden truce, and Oliver nabs a statue’s slender, verdigris-covered limb, newly recovered from the sea, to complete their amusing, peacemaking handshake—italicizing the link between the exhilarated pair and the long-ago Greek tradition of yearning ephebi and their doting mentors. With his long legs and impressive thighs, Hammer’s disco-dancing, god-tall Oliver seems a living Praxiteles—indeed, the Mediterranean statuary prominent in Professor Perlman’s eye-catching slides, and the expressive, rippling piano and Euro-pop soundtrack convey what the steeped-in-summer characters can only hint at much of the time: the glories of art (unearthed and lovingly monitored by Elio’s archeologist father) are rooted in a timeless world of homoerotic passion and beauty.

The movie reserves its two finest brushstrokes, its most poignant feats of cinematic magic, for its closing scenes. Professor Perlman’s heartfelt, riveting speech to a downcast Elio (taken directly from the novel) has already passed into movie and LGBT-community legend. As the empathetic professor, Michael Stuhlbarg uses inventive physical and vocal gestures, charming and fleet as grace notes, to express Perlman’s abiding intimacy and love for his wife and son. I recall, as an Italian-language student in Florence, seeing a father and son (a thick-haired boy, maybe 11 or 12) happily hugging and joking around in a supermarket aisle: delighted by their joyous horseplay, I was reminded how physically remote American family members can be from each other. In a rainstorm, Elio nestles languidly in his parents’ laps (his father dubs him “Elly-Belly”) and his lovely mother, Annella, (Amira Casar) reads aloud from a 16th-century French romance (rendered in German) about a besotted young knight, while nimbly stroking Elio’s curly hair. The cosmopolitan Perlmans, urbane, secular Jews (“Jews of discretion,” Annella declares), blessed with free-flowing erudition and altruism, seem apt models for relaxed, more loving ways to flourish as a family. As Michael Stuhlbarg plays him, there’s the intimation that Elio’s discerning father has tamped down his own clandestine desires and attractions in favor of a traditional life. Of course, scholars and classical historians might counter that in ancient times, cultured men maintained and honored male lovers alongside their allegiance to family.

Call Me by Your Name offers more proof that it’s primarily European films that have restored dignity to adolescent and young adult experience. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty and Jane Campion’s Bright Star (about John Keats and Fanny Brawne) come to mind as moving, artful films that seriously honor a young person’s search for love and sexual communion.

The phoenix-like students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who have boldly arisen from catastrophe as commanding activists, suggest we’ve consistently infantilized and vastly underestimated the insight and power of teenagers. The phenomenon of tousled-haired, reedlike Timothée Chalamet’s spirited performance is another hallmark for what on-fire young people are capable of achieving—as blossoming artists and citizens. As gangly Elio, Chalamet has garnered a lion’s share of critical awards for Best Actor and Best Newcomer, including an Oscar nomination, and rightly so. He’s both coltish and engrossing in the film—bringing at-the-ready humor and restless ardor, real snap and radiance, to his multilingual Ganymede role.

If someone could be pegged an ideal viewer for Call Me by Your Name, it would probably be me; I lived in Florence and Rome in the Nineties and worked in the Italian film industry; my first same-sex love in the mid-Seventies was a facsimile for the one in the film—with exactly the same seven-year age difference. In short, I was Elio—galvanized and grappling, after months of adoring girls, with an electric attraction to a dynamic man. I’m grateful for this superb movie’s accuracy and artistry, which has given me some spiritual access to an impassioned younger self.

In Call Me by Your Name’s final scene, it’s winter: the air is rife with delicate, drifting snow, and Mafalda, the Perlman’s maid, is lighting Hanukkah candles. We’ve been in the ebullient summer kingdom of Crema for so long that the white specter of winter is a gentle shock. Clearly, seasons have passed, and Elio, who sports a wonderful new air of self-confidence and stylishness (his lively shirt is festooned with faces akin to those in Jean Cocteau’s drawings), gets an out-of-the-blue call from Oliver, who presents some mighty challenging news, and yet, in lightning-swift fashion, slips into their old lovers’ pact and pillow talk, calling Elio “Oliver,” and insisting, in ardent sotto voce: “I remember everything.” While Elio’s cordial, forever endearing parents congratulate Oliver on his impending marriage, Elio veers quietly to a hearth, and Guadagnino holds for a long time on Chalamet’s crestfallen, firelit face, the snow plummeting in the window behind him, his sorrow carefully concealed from his mother, intent at her task of setting the holiday table: in this soulful, melancholy coda, we’re brought bone-close to a teenager’s first headlong passion and heart’s crash, and the effect is both classically simple and devastating. As Elio sifts through remnants of his summertime idyll with Oliver, on the soundtrack, Sufjan Stevens sings “Visions of Gideon” (“Is it a video? Is it a video?”), and the mantralike song might be a modern variation on the close of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “Was it a vision or a waking dream?” The film’s greatest ace may be its utter fidelity to the arc of Elio’s risk-taking experience—from stirrings to rapture to bittersweet end.

Cyrus Cassells, a poet and professor of English at Texas State University, lives in Austin.

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  1. Beautifully said. I loved the movie and Mr Cassells’ article /review brought that all back to me.

    • A tremendous review, so spot on.

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