It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner reviews Guadagnino’s seductive feature.
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is a film defined less by its content, which is that of an almost rote coming-of-age romance, than by its form. The summer romance between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) is hardly unique, but under that Italian sun Guadagnino captures the moment inimitably. That is how Call Me By Your Name might best be described – a film of moments. Stolen glances, soft touches, a midnight tryst; these are not only captured through Mukdeeprom’s soft lens, but felt.
It’s 1983, and the setting is a non-specific idyll in North Italy. Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) brings his family here annually, but this year he also invites a young doctoral student. This student, Oliver, is there to aid him in his academic pursuits, but the arrangement seems rather lax. It is here he meets Elio, Perlman’s son, who exists as a type of counterpoint to Oliver in a very physical sense. Chalamet embodies the seventeen-year-old Elio, cutting a slim, even dainty figure. He is fragile in more than appearance, however, his expert touch on piano and guitar emphasising his nimble form, especially when playing the delicate melodies of Debussy. Hammer’s Oliver is, conversely, a kind of modern Adonis. Cast far older than his character to emphasise the age-gap in André Aciman’s novel, Oliver brims with confidence of a particularly American brand. Elio first mocks his cursory farewell, ‘later’, but it clearly figures into his charm. The age-gap is interesting in of itself, as it could easily fall into the trap of exploitation, or the appearance of such. Restraint, both in writing and direction, veer away from this pitfall. Oliver, though making the initial play, is subtle and reserved concerning his interest – Elio is ultimately in control of anything that may take place.
Subtle and reserved might well be bywords for Call Me By Your Name, which sees Guadagnino tone down his fairly loud style to emphasise the excellent performances at the film’s centre. The oft-mentioned ‘peach scene’ has been tempered substantially, though even then it seems a little out of place; the kind of thing that works better on the page in this instance. Rather than embracing the explicit, the film relies on its romantic tension to maintain interest. In its early sections the camera is keen to emphasise distance between the two leads, making sure to spot those glances that last a little too long, the doors left a little too ajar: the signs of an unspoken understanding. This naturally leads to a discussion on the context – in 1983 homosexuality was far from accepted, and so one might expect this film, as many others of the queer genre, to introduce the theme of intolerance around this point. However, it remains thankfully absent. The ghoul of homophobia exists only as a vague undertone, such as a reluctance to kiss in public; there is no antagonist hoping to out them to the world, no cruel parent that might split up the young lovers. This allows the film to breathe, and leaves it able to present the romance without an unnecessary creeping jeopardy.
The only conflict to feature prominently is internal, with Elio coming to terms with his sexuality and relationships. Alongside Oliver is Marzia (Esther Garrel), who is described accurately by Sight & Sound’s Paul O’Callaghan as a ‘part-time girlfriend’. Friends from childhood, the pairing probably seemed natural to Elio, as would his attempts to consummate this relationship. But there is a sense that it might be a form of compensatory posturing, such as when he brazenly declares to Oliver that he could have had sex with her the night before. Is this an assertion of heterosexuality against his internal confusion, or an attempt to gauge Oliver’s reaction? Very possibly a mix of the two. Elio’s father plays a curious role in this burgeoning romance, especially during a scene in which he discusses the shape of Greco-Roman sculpture with Oliver. ‘There’s not a straight body among them,’ he says, ‘they’re all curved.’ And in a moment of perhaps excessive blatancy, they’re ‘daring you to desire them.’ This light encouragement is, again, refreshing for the genre, and permits the audience to drop their guard.
After Elio and Oliver’s romance eventually blossoms, another feature of the film becomes particularly apparent – the soundtrack. Beyond Ryuichi Sakamoto’s graceful piano and some diegetic tunes of the 80s are a trio of songs by Sufjan Stevens, acclaimed folk singer-songwriter picked specifically by Guadagnino. After deciding there would be no narration in a traditional sense, Guadagnino thought the songs of Sufjan could be used as a form of meta-narrative – a contemporary voice to describe the emotion of a remembered past. The first song featured is a reworking of ‘Futile Devices’, a song that concerns a delicate and wordless love, and one that beautifully encapsulates the moment Elio and Oliver pass the bounds of friendship. The two other songs, ‘Visions of Gideon’ and ‘Mystery of Love’ are new compositions, and both also overlay essential moments in Elio and Oliver’s relationship, tracing the supple line between tenderness and dejection. After all, this is a romance of inevitable brevity, a moment in the sun.
Call Me By Your Name premiered on the 9th of October at London Film Festival. It’s out in UK cinemas on the 27th. Watch the trailer below: