Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a god. If true, that would make Call Me by Your Name (2017) deliciously ironic, in that in his human form he’s a doctoral student of Greco-Roman culture. Also, it would be the first time Zeus admits to insecurity in his dalliances. Alas, such a hypothesis only finds supporting evidence in the camera’s gaze, originating in Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) point of view. That point of view is what makes the film work, and we only get one scene in which Oliver is away from Elio and, looking at projector slides, pines for him.
Rarely does someone nowadays go to see a film “cold,” with no prior knowledge of the film, and the fact that this is supposed to be a romance between Oliver and Elio made me feel like I had my hands tied, as if this interpretation of their initial interactions were forced on me. Aside from Oliver’s divine masculinity, for which that abominable button-down, shorts, socks, and tennis shoes ensemble is somehow a plus, there was very little I could point to and say, “There! See? There’s erotic tension between them.” It’s mostly just something in the Italian summer air, a function of James Ivory’s screenplay and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s atmospheric cinematography. The shoulder massage, explained specifically in the third act, could’ve just been avuncular. We know it’s supposed to be erotic and strain to see it as such, but Elio lacks the benefit of foresight, and it’s that ambiguity that renders the first act so sumptuous.
The two leading men are pitch-perfect in the war memorial scene that marks the beginning of the second act, making us feel both Elio’s wracked nerves and Oliver’s trepidatious desire. Even considering all the great stuff that happens later (including the final, seven-minute-long credits shot, which is in and of itself a work of art), this scene is the high point of the film. Unfortunately, it’s followed by the low point—or, rather, several low points: abrupt transition cuts. Editor Walter Fasano explains them by appealing to the nature of memory and the frustrations of desire, but the film (unlike the novel) is not recounted in recollection, and there is a world of difference between frustrated desire depicted onscreen and frustrated onscreen depictions of desire. The cuts I have in mind take no account of the natural rhythm of the scene, or even the musical rhythm of the score, and their jarring abruptness dispels the illusion that is central to the cinematic experience, the exact opposite of the overlong shots of a film like Archipelago (2010). It’s to the major credit of the film and its actors that the subsequent scenes always draw us quickly back in.
Another odd quirk appears in the fourth act, which features an incredibly moving monologue from Elio’s father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), accepting and even celebrating Elio’s experiences throughout the film. The beautiful, revealing, intimate, and even idealistic sentiment is rendered less than perfect by one particular camera movement: the tracking shot of the good professor’s hand reaching for his drink. I have no problem with the drink itself, or the sipping of it, which provides a nice pause for digestion and reflection, but it should’ve been in his hands the whole time.
There is little to fault, though, in the film’s portrayal of physical intimacy. The sex scenes in the film are evocative: holding sensationalism in check while showcasing the tactile, the aural, the olfactory, even the gustatory. Yes, we have to mention the peach scene. Fun fact: “Despite their reservations [about the scene], [director Luca] Guadagnino and Chalamet each tested the method by themselves, and eventually included the scene in the film.” It’s a damn good thing they kept it in, too, because the subsequent scene, when Oliver playfully threatens to eat the defiled peach, is eros in a nutshell: the playful possibility of breaking taboos that is both shameful and arousing, shameful because arousing and arousing because shameful—and, due to this paradoxical combination, a situation filled with a nest of insecurities, especially when the entire erotic enterprise is itself taboo. This insecurity is what enables the two to connect with each other on a deeper level than mere lust, which is why insecurity is the only thing they ever talk about. Richard Brody is exasperated by the film’s lack of intimate dialogue, but having the two actually share intimate knowledge with each other would’ve been tonally incoherent. As pointedly suggested by using their own names as romantic monikers, there is nothing else in their world of two, no other possible reference, and the film’s transient wistfulness gives this focus a stronger intensity than it would’ve had if their brief eternal summer were confronted with the possibility of a future. The film is powerful not in spite of the fact that it’s a summer fling, but because of it.
Editor’s note: cjthereviewer went to see this film with chienntai, who diligently took notes throughout the screening with the aid of the annoying gleam of her phone screen. I’d thought that perhaps they might write this piece together, but nobody could decipher her handwriting. Also, read this radically different take on the film from a gay perspective by D.A. Miller.