December 2017 – January 2018

Arts & Letters

The perfection of youth

By Luke Davies
Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a passionate, positive tale of first love

“Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once,” says archaeologist and scholar Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), by way of fatherly advice, to his 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet), in Luca Guadagnino’s ravishing miniature Call Me by Your Name (in national release 26 December). “To make yourself feel nothing, so as not to feel anything – what a waste.” In Guadagnino’s sun-drenched adaptation of André Acimen’s 2007 novel of sexual awakening, this exploration of feeling – from the purely sensual and tactile to the emotionally heightened and overwrought – is embedded into the musculature of every frame and every scene.

It’s summer, 1983, in Lombardy in northern Italy, where Elio lives in a warm and gorgeous villa with his father and mother Annella (Amira Casar), a translator. There are books everywhere, and music, and visitors, and long outdoor lunches. Cows low in the background. Crickets chirp. The sun beats down pitilessly. Elio flirts with Marzia (Esther Garrel), his regular visitor. Bicycle seems the main mode of transport.

Into the idyll comes Oliver (Armie Hammer), a charming American working on his doctorate, who has scored this year’s coveted summer research internship with Professor Perlman. Oliver is like some force – grander and more mysterious than the teenage girls with whom Elio whiles away the summer – who bursts into Elio’s Garden of Eden. At breakfast Elio watches fascinated as Oliver devours his boiled egg; there seems, to Elio, unfiltered ravenousness in the American visitor. Oliver is all non-reflection. Elio – whose very essence as a teenager is agonised self-absorption – is fascinated by this, and drawn to it. He observes how easily and languidly Oliver fits into social life in the town, playing cards with the old men in the cafe.

Precocious Elio tries to impress Oliver, playing Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother on both guitar and piano. (Chalamet, a marvel, is American-born but speaks flawless French and Italian in the multilingual film.) On the surface, Oliver pays Elio little mind; or rather, he at first keeps his distance. A kind of dance begins, deftly choreographed by Guadagnino. What do the parents see, or know, or understand, of what unfolds? Cinema’s gay love stories have long emphasised the forbidden and the transgressive as the narrative vehicles that move towards doomed outcomes: so-called societal violations get punished. The wonder of Call Me by Your Name lies in just how much it sets up the typical “this can not go well” anxieties, and then subverts them. Instead, the film operates as a paean to memory, to the perfection of youth, and, in no small measure, to adolescent male horniness.

It is perhaps also – and this is where it transcends the sun-speckled joys of its surfaces to become a more wistful and powerful meditation – about parents trying to understand and support their children. One cosy afternoon, the professor and Annella and Elio snuggle on the couch while Annella translates from the Heptaméron, the 16th-century collection of fables by Marguerite de Navarre. In the story she reads, a young knight obsesses about the object of his desire. “Despite the friendship that blossoms between them,” Annella translates, “or perhaps because of that friendship, the young man is afraid to speak up.”

“Is it better to speak or die?” the knight asks. “It’s better to speak,” the princess tells him, in the story.

“So, does he speak?” asks Oliver, later, when Elio relays the gist of the story to Oliver. “No,” says Elio. “He fudges.”

Alone in his room, restless on his bed, Elio writes in his notebook about his growing obsession with Oliver. Sneaking into Oliver’s room, he inhales the guest’s swim trunks, pulls them over his head. The moment is comically touching, but strangely compelling in its grace-filled angst. Clearly Elio doesn’t know what he wants, or even exactly what it is that he’s feeling. Or rather, he is all want. When he accompanies his father and Oliver to a lake where a Greek-age bronze (a statue of a young, naked man) is being brought up from the depths, it seems a perfect image of Elio’s emerging sexuality. Elsewhere, sorting through slides of other Hellenistic statues with Oliver, Professor Perlman speaks of the “ageless ambiguity” of the statues – “as if they’re daring you to desire them”.

As it turns out, Elio will work out what he wants, and find his voice a little more readily than the knight in the fable.

“Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver says to him, in the town square, after Elio has schooled him on some point of Italian history.

“I know nothing, Oliver,” says Elio, with the sense of calamitous sorrow only a 17-year-old can muster.

“Well,” replies Oliver, “you seem to know more than anyone else around here.”

“If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter,” replies Elio.

“What things that matter?” asks Oliver.

There’s a pause. “You know what things,” says Elio.

“Why are you telling me this?” asks Oliver.

“Because I thought you should know,” says Elio, with faux nonchalance. “Because I wanted you to know. Because there’s no one else I can say this to but you.”

James Ivory, who in his heyday with Ismail Merchant made the extraordinary “trilogy” of A Room with a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day (chalking up 25 Oscar nominations in the process), is 89 years old now, and has written, for Guadagnino, a masterful screenplay. The pacing is perfect. There isn’t an ounce of fat. Every line of dialogue does its work with minimal effort and without excess. Despite the sense it creates that we are getting a glimpse into something both intense and intimate – the private delineations of a nascent sexual epiphany – the movie has an emotional grandeur, even as it moves towards the finish line with a measured pace.

Guadagnino, with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, makes of Ivory’s blueprint not just a golden idyll, sensual and lush in the arrangement of every frame, but a kind of throwback: in the film’s tone and texture, one thinks of Italian cinema of the early ’70s. (Guadagnino has called the film “my homage to the fathers of my life: my own father, and my cinematic ones: Renoir, Rivette, Rohmer, Bertolucci …”)

Chalamet doesn’t hit a false note as a teenager awakening to his first passion. This includes the subtly hilarious constant adjustment of his raging boner – a comic riff I’d not seen handled with such affectionate warmth in a film before. There’s a tense humour, too, in Elio’s nervous day of clock-watching after Oliver leaves him a note saying, “Grow up. I’ll see you at midnight.” Midnight may be a long time coming for Elio, so horny that he manages, despite his excruciating anticipation, to have sex with Marzia (with whom he apparently lost his virginity a couple of days earlier) during the wait.

Guadagnino has spoken of how he did not want Call Me by Your Name to be a “hyper-intellectualised” endeavour: “I want it to be like a box of chocolates.” It’s an oddly self-deprecating comment, since the film is no pleasantly whimsical Amélie. It seems, rather, to be both a celebration and an elegy, with heft. The novel is a memory piece – Aciman is a noted Proust scholar – but the film’s slow burn towards sexual consummation, for all that it is bathed in the glow of an irretrievably lost era, for all that it presents itself elegiacally, feels very much anchored in a sense of presentness and urgency. The villa may be a Garden of Eden, but eroticism, desire and anxiety, in the hands of a 17-year-old with an excess of sexual energy, are not the most languorous forces in cinema; and the haunting of first love no small matter.

The film posits that love is a positive experience, capable of changing us for the better and forever, despite and not because of those inherent anxieties.

The film hangs back from suggesting whether it is Oliver or Elio who has more agency in the unfolding of the narrative. It hints that Elio’s parents see the encounter as benign enough. “You like him, don’t you?” says Annella. “Everyone likes Oliver,” shrugs Elio.

It is Professor Perlman who recognises the specific wonder – that moment never to be repeated – of his son’s complex, transcendent experience on the edge of adulthood. “You two had a nice friendship,” he says, and we sense a kind of awkward parental minimising about to unfold. Then the speech takes a left turn, and what may be one of cinema’s great “Dad” speeches ensues. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster,” says the professor, hinting at a lost opportunity from his own past, “that we go bankrupt by the age of 30.” The film, suggesting we must embrace what Joseph Campbell has called “joyful participation in the sorrows of life”, is a plea against that bankruptcy.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

December 2017 – January 2018