If you’re a queer person, then you’ve probably been a confused teenager once. You’ve probably gone through the anguish of discovering who you are and coming to terms with it. Director Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me by Your Name’, based on the novel by Andre Aciman, is one of the few films out there that perfectly explores the fragility and beauty of that discovery. The film debuted early last year at the Sundance Film Festival, and began showing in cinemas in November. Since then, it has been met with critical acclaim and a total of 202 award nominations. These include Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Song, and Best Adapted Screenplay, the last of which it won.
The film follows the story of Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet), a 17 year-old boy of a mixed European background, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American PhD student who works as Elios’ father’s assistant at their Italian vacation home in the summer. The story’s strongest element is its subtlety: the patient build-up of Elio and Oliver’s romance.
It starts with Elio being annoyed at Oliver’s infringing on his personal space, and they often bicker and argue. But as the story progresses, an interesting dynamic grows between them. They become strange friends who tease each other, and have philosophical discussions – mainly about music and their shared Jewish faith – that greatly impact Elio’s growth. You can see the development of their feelings and the sexual tension between them, but in such a quiet and soft way that mirrors Elio’s slow realization.
There is a touching moment between Elio and his parents, where his mother reads a story about a prince who fell in love with his friend, and didn’t know whether to “speak or die”. Elio’s parents are supportive, which is rare in queer stories, especially ones set in the times of prevalent anti-gay sentiment. It leads to Elio finally giving in to his feelings, and indirectly confessing in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes. He’s tentative and scared, and never calls it what it is, but tells Oliver they must speak of ‘the things that matter.’ Their first kiss after this is both passionate and pained, and carries the rush and messiness of a controversial love like theirs.
Elio and Oliver continue their back-and-forth for the rest of the film, switching between stolen moments and sneaking around the house, and Elio’s hidden exploration with Marzia, a local girl with a crush on him. His exploration of his sexuality is shown best by what’s been dubbed ‘the peach scene,’ a scene where Elio masturbates with a peach. It sounds weird, but the emotional response the scene inspires sells it. Elio breaks into tears when Oliver discovers what he’d done, and it’s then where all of his confusion, embarrassment, and internalized shame and homophobia come out. It’s a touching moment that forces the viewer to forget about the perversion of Elio’s exploration, and focus on the pain and self-hatred he feels.
There are many other scenes worthy of mentioning, such as Oliver’s request for Elio to call him by his name, which finally explains the title. Their romantic getaway towards the end of the film is filled with some equally carefree and painful moments as they get closer to their imminent separation. But it’s in the very last scene where all of the heartbreak implodes. It’s when Oliver calls to tell the family he’s engaged, and he and Elio call each other by one another’s names for the last time. It’s frustrating for the viewer, because you’ve been rooting for a happy ending, but the directions of their lives simply don’t allow it. Moreover, it’s the idea of their names endlessly reminding them of the other that really stings and leaves you thinking about the film after the closing credits.
Also worthy of mentioning is cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s incredible work on the scenery of the film. It’s such a vibrant picture that takes full advantage of the lush nature of Italy’s countryside. The soundtrack features a variety of classical pieces that Elio plays or transcribes, and those piano ballads often appear in emotionally charged scenes as an expression of Elio’s feelings. It also includes two original songs by Sufjan Stevens that perfectly summarize the love story.
Call Me by Your Name is fragile and soft, bold and groundbreaking. It shows a bittersweet side of first love, and crosses lines in its exploration of identity and sexuality. And it does all of this with impeccable storytelling, vibrant visuals, eye-catching cinematography, and a soundtrack so touching that it’s almost an extension of Elio himself. It’s a film well worth watching and talking about. The film will be a source of comfort, validation, and reassurance for many LGBTQ+ kids who are experiencing the same struggles as Elio.