If watching A Bigger Splash was like climbing into a jacuzzi and discovering that it may contain a crab, Luca Guadagnino’s third chapter in his so-called trilogy of desire, Call Me By Your Name (which follows the former and I am Love before it), might be considered akin to climbing into said jacuzzi, finding it crab free, being handed a cornucopia of cool, Sicilian lemonade, and then having to remain as the water drains away. It may be la dolce vita, but love stings.
After years of stasis and changing crews, Call Me By Your Name has been a long time in the making. Based on the novel by André Aciman, this is a coming out, and of age, tale of romance and youth, passion and heartbreak, set to a vivaciously saturated backdrop. Each scene overflows with lush symbolism, epitomised in fertile peaches, an Arnolfini mirror and untamed waterfalls. All on screen teems with life and is captured in a warmth so potent that one might almost feel the breeze oozing from the irresistible frame. When a title caption announces the film’s location to be ‘Somewhere in Northern Italy’, it launches a fairytale tone which pervades the tale to come; established is the film’s enduring – even magical – charm.
More specific, and necessarily so, would be the dating of the film. The story opens in the Summer of 1983, in an Italy where homosexuality is still, in all acts, illegal, and a wider world with precious little by way of acceptance. Timothée Chalamet plays the preciously talented Elio Perlman, a sexually frustrated sixteen-year-old living an otherwise idyllic, sun drenched existence with his parents, Annella (Amira Casar) and Lyle (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the family housekeeper Mafalda (Vanda Capriolo). Lyle is an academic and every year takes a young fellow to study at the Casa Perlman, which is where Armie Hammer comes in as the bright, good-looking American adonis Oliver. After a period of stand-offish hesitancy, it soon becomes clear that Oliver shares a certain something with Elio that goes far beyond friendship.
It goes without saying, of course, that the success of Call Me By Your Name and the events that unfold therein lie largely in the hands of its leading couple. What raises the film to near-constant ecstasy, then, is just how wonderfully Chalamet and Hammer build on an instant chemistry to create a relationship which is really rather special. Hammer’s is a talent too often underused before now so it’s one of many pleasures here to find the star given more challenging material and more to work with altogether less disposable. Chalamet, meanwhile, is something of a revelation. For all the cocky bravura of Elio’s outward persona, there is never any doubt in this performance of the young man in crisis lying within, suppressed by the natural flows of puberty and the awkward transition to adulthood. Here is an actor of promise; as though that needed evidencing further, it’s worth noting that Chalamet learned Italian and to play the guitar for the role.
Music is, indeed, absolutely at the blossoming heart of Guadagnino’s cinematographical storytelling here. James Ivory’s script implodes with reference, whilst Elio’s genius is such that successive, glorious shots frame him composing as he sunbathes, before proceeding to spin off casual rewrites of Bach. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is full of pianist twinkles that echo Cocteau’s Le Belle et la Bête and it’s dreamlike euphoria, whilst two emulating the emotional rhythms of classics from the age of silent cinema. Complementing the arrangement, Sufjan Stevens’ lyrical contributions, too, are truly special, particularly his enchanting and iconic ‘Mystery of Everything’.
As Elio and Oliver cycle laconically through the streets and story, so gorgeous is their environment that an exit to the real world is almost disheartening in its wake. Guadagnino has crafted a windy love story of Shakespearian descent and, as forest of Arden’s go, his little corner of Italy is lovely.