Films are, by design, confined works. Their characters, narratives and settings exist only within the limits of their run times, and only on occasion do the worlds they create or the characters who populate them leave a lasting impression on the zeitgeist or feel real enough to exist as more than artistic constructs.
Rarer still is the film that escapes these constraints, and yet here is one. Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s exquisite coming of age drama "Call Me by Your Name" is that rare picture that must be seen to be believed — a masterful and exquisitely crafted love story whose contents transcend the confines of the cinematic medium, bursting from the screen to occupy a tangible part of the real world.
The film's characters feel less like characters than living, breathing people, thanks to uniformly excellent work from an immensely talented cast. Its world, exquisitely shot by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, feels perfectly realized.
The film, adapted from André Aciman’s novel of the same name, begins as Elio (Timothée Chalamet, breathtaking), a precocious and occasionally awkward 17-year-old, and his family welcome 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer, charismatic as ever), an American doctoral student, to their summer home in northern Italy, where he’ll be staying for the summer to help Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg, exceptional) with research.
Feelings quickly blossom between the two young men, and they are soon swept up in a life-changing and deeply passionate romance.
"Call Me by Your Name" is by all accounts one of the most genuine and heartbreakingly truthful portraits of love the medium has ever seen. It is surely the greatest love story to grace the silver screen in a very long whole, if not ever. Its highs feel euphoric, and its more somber moments are profoundly affecting.
To watch the film is to experience it, to behold it — to feel as the characters feel and to experience the events of the film vicariously through them.
Guadagnino’s film feels so viscerally real in large part thanks to the sensitivity of its characters and the care with which they are brought to life. Chalamet is a revelation as Elio, delivering a performance that feels both impressively subdued and deeply human. The film grants him few opportunities to convey emotion verbally.
Instead he must make the most of tender quietness and subdued facial expressions. Key to the character is Chalamet’s ability to effortlessly switch between languages — most frequently English and French, but with occasional bouts of Italian as well — which lends the character a slight air of maturity, a sort of bravado which occasionally obscures the timid kid he is deep down.
Alongside Chalamet is Armie Hammer, who’s demonstrated his knack for charisma in loads of blockbusters, from "The Lone Ranger" to "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," but until now has never shown such a capacity for translating such fascinating characters to the screen. Hammer plays Oliver with all his usual charisma, but there’s also a tenderness to the character that nicely undercuts his swagger.
Hammer and Chalamet have insanely good chemistry — their romance is captivating and electrifying, and one can’t help but root for them at every turn. So good, in fact, is their chemistry that even though the two are initially cold towards one another, one can’t help but sense the implicit connection between them.
The film unfolds at a leisurely pace, driven through its first act largely by the intoxicating interplay between the two. It’s more than enough to carry an entire film, and with the exquisite filmmaking of a director like Guadagnino there to compliment it, the pair’s chemistry is an unstoppable asset.
But Guadagnino is not content to just let the chemistry of his leads bolster the film’s momentum, nor will he settle with exploring only their dynamics. As a filmmaker he is fascinated not only by his characters, but also by the environments around them, and in "Call Me by Your Name" he develops the lush Italian countryside with the same precision and devotion he extends to his characters.
In fact, the setting itself at times feels like a character. Its contributions to the film’s mood and narrative are certainly substantive enough to warrant such a designation. Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is vital in this regard; there’s a tactility to his imagery, a lovely little strife between the hard-edged grain of the film on which the picture was shot and the ethereal vibrancy of its landscapes, which contributes nicely to the rich and sumptuous feeling of the whole production.
There’s also an intense focus on sensuality throughout the film, which creates an intoxicating palpability that extends far beyond the interplay between its leads. Physical interaction feels viscerally real, but so does the setting and so do the characters that inhabit it. Every component of the film feels perfectly attuned to convey not only the emotions of the characters, but also the whirlwind of powerful physical sensations they’re experiencing.
Especially significant here is Mukdeeprom’s brilliant work behind the camera. Visually, the picture is populated by a wealth of immaculately composed shots—images of juicy peaches and apricots hanging from trees in a family orchard, of quaint town squares, of late night outdoor discos and of deeply intimate interactions between the leads—all of which is anchored by
Guadagnino’s focus on heightened sensuality and emotion. Sound design also plays a key role here, as well as the inclusion of a certain peach scene lifted directly from the pages of Aciman’s novel. Guadagnino takes a tremendous risk here, and it pays off in droves.
And yet despite the passion of the film’s romance and the intoxicating link Guadagnino creates between sensuality, romance, and landscape, the whole affair is underscored by a bittersweet feeling that this love cannot last.
It is perhaps here that the film’s focus on invoking the senses in its depiction of the vibrant Italian summer pays off the most; by linking Elio and Oliver’s romance to the imagery of a vibrant summer, Guadagnino carefully encodes into his film a knowing feeling that as the summer draws to a close, so must this romance.
The film maintains a delicate balance between the pure, rapturous joy of its lovers’ blossoming romance and the bittersweetness ushered on by its impermanence. As with all good things, Elio and Oliver’s connection must eventually be put to rest, and Guadagnino imbues the entire film with a gentle melancholy that underscores its surface-level ethereality.
Also worth mentioning are the musical contributions of indie/folk artist Sufjan Stevens, who composed two songs specifically for the film’s soundtrack, entitled “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon.”
The songs, each exquisite works in their own rights, perfectly underscore the moments of the film in which they are featured, and the latter, a somber piece that underscores one of the film’s most heartfelt moments, packs an emotional sucker punch whose effects are nearly indescribable.
"Call Me by Your Name" is a truly unforgettable piece of cinema, undoubtedly the very best film of 2017 and an exquisitely made film to boot. The romance between its leads is so beautifully tender, and so lovingly presented, that it can’t help but feel like more than just a film. All we can do is be thankful we were so lucky as to witness their interactions.