Luca Guadagnino Seduces with Alluring Imagery
by John Sklute
The night that 17-year-old Elio and Oliver, his father’s 20-something visiting graduate assistant, consummate their love, Oliver tells Elio to call him by his name, and he will do the same, that is, give over your identity to me and take mine within you. Luca Guadagnino’s haunting, earnest film Call Me by Your Name (based on the novel by André Aciman with a screenplay by veteran James Ivory) creates a beautiful world of intimacy with family, nature, and two men who love each other.
Desire is at the center of the film. “They dare you to desire them,” Elio’s father, a Professor of Archeology, says to Oliver as he shows him slides of the statues attributed to Praxiteles, the originator of the classical Greek ideal of beauty. We feel Elio’s youthful desire as he looks at the older, handsome Oliver at table, glimpses his naked buttocks as he’s changing into his swimsuit, and studies his big feet as he’s dancing with the local girls. Secretly, Elio enters Oliver’s room, finds a used pair of Oliver’s shorts on the bedpost, slowly sticks his head in them, and sniffs.
Being older and more experienced, Oliver recognizes Elio’s infatuation and attempts to discourage it although he himself feels his own unspoken draw. When Oliver finally kisses Elio, the two of them in their shorts lying together on the grass, it is an awkward exploratory moment, without passion. Oliver thinks the kiss will satisfy and end the matter, but Elio puts his hand between Oliver’s thighs and cups his basket. Oliver responds calmly by lifting the hand away.
In the only scene of actual sexual intercourse, Elio remarks to Marzie (Esther Garrel), a local girl who adores him and wants to become his girlfriend, how good it feels, but he worries that he came too fast. She giggles and tells him it’s OK.
As opposed to lack of sex, there’s a great deal of nudity. But most of it is of Praxiteles’ male statues. The young girls who hang out with Elio and dream of Oliver as well are scantily clad and sometimes topless—it is summer after all in northern Italy, and it’s hot.
We all know how the relationship will end—the visit is only eight weeks long. James Ivory’s touching script marks stages of the developing love between the two men through striking images — a shattered boiled egg at the beginning, a freshly caught carp gasping for air when the infatuation grows palpable. Then there is the hand and arm of a Praxiteles statue retrieved from Lake Garda, which Elio shakes as if to end his resistance to his feelings. Or the Star of David he wears around his neck like a wedding band, to match the one Oliver has been wearing. And, startlingly, a juicy ripe peach that Elio pits and penetrates, and that Oliver then lusciously devours.
Soyombhu Mukdeeprom’s admiring camera shows Guadanigno’s idea that love, like nature, takes place in time by locating the romantic and erotic moments within the serene beauty of the northern Italian countryside–the ripening orchards and the leaf-strewn lakes. In the Alpine foothills a waterfall drops into a wooded landscape, and over the tumult of the falls we hear each lover, unseen, calling to the other by his own name. And finally, at a station the lovers embrace in silence, no more to be said, and then part.
As Elio, Timothée Chalamet is a wonderful actor, every inch as smart and sensitive as the character he inhabits. As Oliver, Armie Hammer appears primarily as an incarnation of a Praxiteles statue until he opens up? sexually to his own feelings. Then we see the spectrum of care, worry, and doubt crossing his face.
Though it is a “coming of age” movie, Call Me by Your Name is not a “coming out” movie in the typical sense. There is no suggestion that Elio is gay or that Oliver is not primarily heterosexual. Elio has sexual fun with girls, and Oliver later tells us by phone that he’s gotten engaged to a woman he has known “off and on” for several years. The same sex of the lovers is as nonchalant as the difference in their ages. Guadanigno is rather telling us what the father, beautifully played by Michael Stuhlbarg, so clearly sees and tells his son—that love between two people is good, real, natural. Elio’s parents, in fact, have watched the relationship flourish, have even enabled it.
After Oliver leaves, Elio’s father, in a tour de force of paternal wisdom, tells him that “Nature has a way of finding our weakest spots.” He then confesses that he avoided getting close to a certain man when he was young, and it was a mistake. The pleasure Elio and Oliver have had, he suggests, and the chagrin, which must follow, ought to be embraced as part of the natural course of things. “Don’t make yourself feel nothing,” he says, “so as not to feel anything. What a waste.”
After Elio and Oliver months later have said farewell on the telephone by calling each other by their own name, in a lengthy final shot the film credits roll on the left side of the screen while our eyes are riveted on the sad beauty of the grieving young man watching the burning logs in the fireplace.