During a 1980s summer in small-town northern Italy, a teenager forms a fraternal relationship with an American grad student and researcher who’s come to stay with his family of academics—but this seasonal bond soon develops into something much deeper in this poised LGBT coming-of-age drama from the director of ‘I Am Love’ and ‘A Bigger Splash’.
Hollywood and the film industry can be accused of many things but no one can deny how far ahead of the curve cinema can be when it comes to addressing social change—and the depiction of gay people in a less than tolerant or understanding society recently hit a pinnacle just earlier this year with the success of Barry Jenkins’s gritty coming-of-age ghetto drama ‘Moonlight’.
Now Italian director Luca Guadagnino brings his own distinct approach to the concept, teaming up with James Ivory(Howards End, The Remains of the Day) to adapt the André Aciman novel and give us subtle and balanced gay rite-of-passage drama and ‘summer of love’ tale—which seems destined to make waves come awards season.
Timothée Chalamet stars as 17-year-old aspiring classical musician ‘Elio Perlman’. A sheltered young man living a quiet, cultured and multi-lingual provincial life with his American professor father ‘Mr. Perlman’ (Michael Stuhlbarg) and French academic mother ‘Annella’ (Amira Casar) in their northern Italian villa, when his father’s newest researcher and the family’s latest seasonal guest ‘Oliver’ (Armie Hammer) arrives—a brash, confident and occasionally aloof young American who charms everyone around him, and becomes the focus of Elio’s affections and obsessions.
Like many a LGBT-themed drama of recent years or indeed of the past few decades, ‘Call Me by Your Name’ serves to not only depict the experiences of a minority and traditionally marginalised section of society for a more general audience, but also to create a basic human connection between the characters and the viewers, some of which for some reason or another cannot grasp very concept of homosexuality—let alone accept it.
Perhaps it’s a sign of a more tolerant social climate and/or the subtlety of the material and Guadagnino’s treatment of it, but the film feels like more than a gay love story and in fact could just be seen as a charming and touching tale of burgeoning romance, sprinkled with almost as much charm and dry awkward humour as it is with poignancy and tenderness—a summer of love which could be anyone’s but just so happens to be between two young men.
Even the sensuality and passion on display are not too confronting for a less open-minded audience, despite the nudity and explicit sex scenes involved, which are nevertheless handled with tact and taste while textured with tenderness—all of which serve as threads in a nuanced tapestry of universal human emotions like infatuation and longing, but with the added ‘forbidden love’ and ‘will they, won’t they’ dimension.
The film (like the novel) is a highly idealised vision and unconventional in some ways, with no clear repercussions for the two lovers and an implausibly understanding family surrounding the young man who comes of age, plus no antagonist to overcome—and with all the emotional struggles and self-determination being beautifully internalised. This is also minimalist and considered adaptation, mercifully devoid of melodrama or unnecessary sentimentality, and with no narration to speak of as Guadagnino opts for a soundtrack of new Sufjan Stevens music and some 80s tracks to adorn the contemplation and serve as subtle commentary.
The visuals in the film are equally emotive and seductive, with Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom colourfully capturing the rural and rustic beauty of Lombardy in the summertime, in a film which longingly presents a vision of a comfortable northern rural Italy. A country in touch with its culture and untouched by politics, rampant capitalism or globalisation, where the classes mixed in a prescribed way and a blend of hard-working calm contentment with a lyrical melancholy was in the air—needless to say a bygone era which no longer exists . . . if it every really did.
Ultimately though this beautifully balanced cinematic canvas of human emotion is brought to life by the tone-perfect performances of the entire cast, from Casar as the loving level-headed mother, to the always excellent Stuhlbarg as the perceptive and supportive dad—whose unforgettable fatherly speech about the importance of opening up emotionally at the risk of loss and pain encapsulates the beating heart of the film.
Unsurprisingly it’s the film’s two leads who ultimately shine the brightest and justify all the early awards buzz they’ve garnered, delivering nuanced and subtle yet incredibly emotive performances, with Hammer proving his dedication to variety when it comes to his career, and relative newcomer Chalamet impressing with a mature performance filled with internalised emotion—beautifully captured through the final lingering shot of the film.
The mere fact that this is a narrative centred on an LGBT theme will undoubtedly make it controversial somehow, with some (rather famous) commentators already taking issue with the depiction of a sexual relationship between a young man on the cusp of manhood and one in his early twenties—although we doubt it would be such an issue were it involving two women, or a heterosexual couple. But there’s nothing provocative or particularly contentious about the way this story is told, with Guadagnino taking inspiration from Renoir, Bertolucci and a cannon of classic European film to craft an elegant, charming and touching tale about the energy and purity of formative young love . . . before the world has a chance to get in the way.
The Bottom Line…
An expertly balanced, charming and touching yet bittersweet and melancholy LGBT coming-of-age and sexual awakening story, which transcends sexual orientation— Guadagnino and Ivory’s masterful cinematic adaptation of the idealised yet grounded novel is propelled upwards by the accomplished performances of its two stars . . . and will no doubt be a familiar sight come awards season.
‘Call Me by Your Name’ is out on the 27th of October in the UK, and on the 24th of November in the US.