In Call Me by Your Name, love is reparative; more often than not, it’s mending the harm it has itself inflicted. It’s sweet succor for the reality of its own expiration. It’s hair of the dog.
To this end, the film is a patient, attentive telling of desire as pulverising crisis of confidence; an authoritative cataloguing of infatuation’s common pitfalls and graces. In its bravely un-squeamish findings, it offers the wasteful pettiness, and the hasty redoubts; the deranged, bibulous internalising of perceived slights and endearments; and the equally wounding revelations that no ill was meant. It permits the lush abandon, provided it’s couched in private opprobrium. And in its sad wisdom and indomitable composure, it gives the giddy frisson of togetherness and consummation its day – but virtually little more. Aesthetically, it’s an invitingly lyrical stroll of a film, scorched with a not-insignificant neorealist agony and ecstasy, that simmers beneath its piquant curlicues – realised with deftness by its excellent cast. It’s an infernal earworm, but what’s catching isn’t some diaphanous jingle, but rather the muffled plangence of the tune.
Set in 1983 Northern Italy, the film concerns the uneasily negotiated courtship between Elio, and seventeen-year-old Jewish-American-Italian, and Oliver, a twenty-four-year-old Jewish-American who has come to spend the summer under the tutelage of Elio’s scholar father. If this sounds fraught in the usual ways, it’s not; the film presents its romance with a fascinating and refreshing lack of perfidy. It takes time to humorously observe how open male tenderness is made clandestine by convenient social coding; attraction serendipitously sublimated by being indistinguishable from the deportment of a post-Fascist, vaguely homo-social, bourgeois cognoscenti. However, its chief concern is the devastation of identity that occurs in the face of stomach-clenching desire. Throughout, we see Elio harangued by the longing of the restless adventurer, tempered with the manners of a pensive academic, consigned to the habitat of the bon vivant, and adorned with the trimmings of the feckless youth. These self-cultivated and/or helplessly imposed selves and their varying ductility fumble under Oliver’s gaze, and in bearing witness to his frame.
Oliver endures his own crucible of neurotic tumult (a moving late-film reveal), but we’re privy mostly to Elio’s perspective – a move which seems to have welcomely reigned in the film’s director. Luca Guadagnino’s previous outings were characterised by ebullient paroxysm, of the kind that’s joylessly beheld – like reproachfully glaring at a rowdy party at the next table (notable high-water mark exception: the dopey Dithyrambic gyrating of Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash). Here, however, his work is beautifully restrained, or at least focused; that bedizened sense of revelry hasn’t been entirely stoked, but instead thoughtfully filtered through a psychological, character-driven framework. The lush rapture is not Guadagnino’s outlook, but Elio’s.
Guadagnino usually seems to pride himself on making his cuts innumerable, but here he pauses more than ever before, allowing time to fix and caress the images, giving substance and charge to proximity by housing the frame’s occupants in impregnable long takes, that seem almost the incidental refractions of an endless spring of sunshine. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom miraculously recreates a very particular distillation of gentle, unsmothering sunlight (forced as he was to turn to entirely artificial lighting when the shoot was beset by inclement weather), draping proceedings in a kind of chimeric languor that adds the influence of the milieu’s aesthetics to the list of tragic justifications for Elio and Oliver’s coy fecklessness.
Crucially as well, Guadagnino’s restraint doesn’t seek to delibidinize; when Elio and Oliver at last come together, he’s not sanitizing a transgression by panning away, but instead at last granting privacy to characters who’ve been poured over relentlessly. The characters frequently attempt to rationalise attraction through intellectually quantifiable values (e.g. intelligence, physicality, confidence, etc.), but all ultimately prove inadequate. An inherent, shared “goodness” is perhaps the closest origin one can trace for attraction, the film concludes in a heart-stopping coda, delivered with stunning warmth and wistfulness by an unexpected supporting character. Call Me by Your Name may be just a tad utopian, but its kindly frankness more than earns the sentiment.