“Call Me By Your Name” has been revered by critics and movie-lovers everywhere. James Ivory has won many an accolade (most recently an Oscar at last Sunday’s ceremony!) for penning its stunning script. Timothée Chalamet has received nothing but acclaim for his exceptional portrayal of the film’s protagonist “Elio”. So much so, you can barely even whisper his name without hearing echoes of “the next Daniel Day Lewis” or “HE WAS ROBBED OF AN OSCAR”. The film, quite simply, has caused an amorous delirium within the cinephile community, and is fast becoming a feverish obsession amongst its members.
But the question remains – is it truly worth the hype? Is it a cinematic creation for the ages or does its explosive adoration represent its quick fade from film history?
I will argue that is worth its immense global fandom,on one condition: be sure not to confuse it with a fully accurate representation of reality. It is true that “Call Me By Your Name” has neither the magical realism of, say, DelToro’s The Shape of Water, nor the overtly quirky theatrics almost synonymous with the name “Wes Anderson. However there is still a strong theme of irreality within it, one that might put off some viewers.
The premise of the film is simple enough: it follows a summer in the life of Elio and his love affair with one of his father’s students, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Yet, immediately, we learn that it will not be as straightforward as all that; a title soon reveals that this film is to be set in a mysterious region that is “somewhere in Northern Italy”. This vagueness of location is important; it means that we cannot ground the film into reality with our geographic knowledge of the area. We simply are forced to accept this glorious paradise of sunshine. To put it another way, Ivory and Luca Guadagino, the film’s director, successfully conspire together to take this village out of space as we know it.
More interestingly, however,is that Guadagino has also succeeds in locating this film out of time as well. Despite us knowing that the film is set in 1983, the aesthetic of the film makes it somehow timeless. The family home and nearby town are both incredibly quaint, fashioning old European style architecture and furnishing. The local bar has a nostalgic feeling to it; it has the interior decoration and commandery of a lost time. Era specific technology and popular culture references are also very few and far between. We see barely any cars in the film, and we glimpse a television only once. Even the great and iconic music of this generation is used sparingly, classical music being preferred in its place.
The importance of this is that we find prisoners of some sort of mysterious time wrap. Even its very few cultural references makes “Call Me By Your Name” too modern to be a drama from any other epoch. Yet, equally, it is too stylistically dissimilar to what we understand the 80s to be that we cannot fully accept that this is the era it is set in. We find ourselves in this timeless limbo, one where the older pleasures of literature, academia, and music rule over the fast pace of of modern life.
An interesting question does emerge, however, when questioning whether this theme of irreality is demonstrated in the central focus of the film: the relationship between Elio and Oliver. “Call Me By Your Name” has been lauded by the LGBT+ community and its allies for its realistic depiction of homosexual love. Critics note, for instance, the rare joy of having a gay love story not centred around a political agenda or cartoonish villains.
More than that however, both Chalamet and Hammer individually add something to the authenticity of the relationship. Chamalet shines as he perfectly portrays Elio’s vulnerability and youth. His body language conveys Elio’s initial awkwardness, and insecurity, his movements stiff and body upright, until he becomes bolder, more confident in his emotions. Whilst Elio brings the fear and wonder that comes with first love, I would say that it is through Hammer’s performance that we witness the utter joy of it. In later scenes, he never stops smiling or laughing boldly; he embodies that giddiness that only comes with love.
However, despite the reality these actors bring to their characters, I would argue that there is something not quite, fully “true to life” about their love: their dialogue does not reflect natural speech. Whilst some reviewers relish the sparsity of dialogue, as it gives the actors more freedom to convey emotion through the “unsaid”, I believe it also robs us of the ability to humanise the characters. There is no mundane chat or really any prolonged, meaningful conversation. They either speak in poetics or intense, perfectly intune exchanges, that are simply too contrived to be genuine instances of unscripted speech. The words are too specific, too meticulously chosen for us to ignore them as art in themselves. Instead of teaching us about the personalities of Elio and Oliver, they are a tool, an added artistic element to each scene. Rather than “people”, they both thus exist as simply aspects of an art piece.
Yet, in my opinion, it is not a disadvantage that these characters, nor their summer in the timeless paradise of endless sunshine, do not portray reality. Guadagino is not trying to capture reality; he is capturing love in its purest and most perfect form. I believe it helps to think of it as a memory of one’s first love. Exact words, exact times, exact places don’t really matter; it is the feeling they invoke in us. Maybe there was the occasional rainy day; yet to us every day was felt sun-kissed. Maybe we talked for hours on end, but frankly only few moments, few fragments of conversation will last a lifetime. This is love purified; the mundane and the ordinary are simply thrown out.
Yet, even when this love of a perfect summer faces the hardship of winter, we still witness a sort of distilled reality. The emotion of the scene is highlighted through every cinematic element. After their separation, ice and snow accompanies Elio’s grief. The final dialogue between the lovers brings the feeling of discordance, the misery of losing our first love. Elio attempts to recapture some of their beauty of their earlier conversations; yet Oliver has to keep it in the now. They are no longer in conversational harmony It is not so much what is said that is important; it is simply the fact that it can no longer be the same.
Despite it not being perhaps as naturalistic as some films, “Call Me By Your Name” is still somewhat relatable; we have shared the same high and lows of love as Elio. The difference is that they are captured in a more beautiful light; the gold of the rising sun rather than the sky of another dreary day.