It’s the 1980s and seventeen year old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is wiling away the long summer days at his parents’ villa in Northern Italy. School is out and the sun is beating down; there’s little to do. Elio has breakfast among the peach trees with his parents, flipping between speaking English and Italian with ease, and then takes to a lounger to read, compose music and occasionally take a dip in the refreshingly cool water. Sometimes there’s a party to go to or a game of volleyball with his friends, but otherwise it’s a long, languorous summer that feels like it could go on forever.
Enter Armie Hammer as Oliver, the sun-kissed American stranger. He’s arrived at their remote villa to work with Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an academic whose work, although not entirely clear, appears to be focused around the study of Classical languages and ancient nude statues. Oliver is cool and charismatic, eager to learn and immediately charms the Perlman household and all who visit. As he plans to stay at the villa for several weeks, Elio’s mother (Amira Casar) instructs her son to give his bedroom to their guest and stay in an adjoining guest room. I’ll let you piece together the rest.
Call Me By Your Name may be a gay love story, but it plays like a love song to anyone who has ever experienced the ecstasy and pain of a first love. It’s more than fiction, it’s a visually stunning journey that gently takes your hand and pulls you back to those first feelings of all-consuming desire and overwhelming pain of loving another person. It’s a pure, deep love, the film acknowledges, and it hurts as much as it thrills.
Amongst the restless lethargy of the long sunny days, the newly arrived Oliver is taken by Elio to a party where, unsurprisingly, Oliver is going down a treat with the young Italian women. Watching on as he dances, Elio’s yearning is palpable. You feel the ache along with him; the pain of falling for someone whose appeal is seen by everyone. Elio looks on silently, powerlessly. In this scene, along with so many others, the film triumphs in bringing a universal feeling to a remote, intimate setting and it’s a beautiful, horrible experience.
Oliver and Elio bond not only out of a necessity to be friendly, but through learning that they have both been “the odd Jew out” in their communities. Both have had to learn discretion and, as Elio discovers for the first time, have more than this one secret to conceal from the wider world. It is a film about everything that goes unsaid, letting the camera capture the small glances and gestures that say more than a conversation ever could. The conversation, instead, takes the form of intellectual banter as the family delight in Oliver’s intelligence and wit. In one scene, the American visitor playfully puts Elio’s father in his place over the origin of a word. It all gets a little bit Oedipal when Elio watches longingly as Oliver triumphs in a battle of brains with his father. Oliver manages to out-dad his dad. And it’s sexy.
Elio’s family are frustratingly smart. Not only is Elio’s father an academic but his mother is also multi-lingual, at one point taking her son’s head in her lap to read him a fairy tale that she translates from German on the spot. There is a point to it, though, and it’s not only to stress Elio’s youth and innocence in this rather obvious scene. Oliver is intoxicated by young Elio’s intelligence, but Elio admits he doesn’t know anything about the things that matter. It’s his way of asking Oliver to educate him in the ways love; he sees little value in his book smarts when he is unsure how to express himself physically to the man he is falling in love with. It’s the beautiful beginning of their love affair.
Heat radiates off the screen, not only from the palpable warmth of the Italian sun but from the delicious sexual tension between the central two characters. In most scenes, Oliver and Elio are only a pair of shorts away from being completely starkers in each others’ company, making the slow build up to their romance all the more tantalising. Every touch is exquisite, every glance electric. You know the feeling. The sun, the skin… it’s such an erotic experience you’ll actually feel the steamy heat that director Luca Guadagnino so carefully creates. When the camera follows the pair inside the house, it’s to watch young Elio play the piano for Oliver. His controlled mastery on the piano makes way for heavy-handed, frantic slamming on the keys. He’s eager. He’s inexperienced. I’m sure you’re picking up on the analogy here.
You’ll hear a lot about ‘the peach scene’ if you Google this film and it’s unsurprising; it’s a sensual, funny and moving moment (that I promise I won’t spoil for you!). I sincerely hope its notoriety doesn’t damage the tenderness of the scene because, while it is much talked about, it’s another example of how the film shows someone discovering their sexuality without judgement. It’s simple and oddly beautiful. And, if your English teacher was anything like mine, you’ll already know that ripe soft fruit in a story is a symbol of sensuality.
As with any story about a long and romantic summer, we all know that there will come a time when goodbyes must be said and life as usual must resume. You won’t have cried over a shirt so much since the end of Brokeback Mountain, nor will you be able to take your eyes off Elio in the breath-taking credit sequence. The melancholy song ‘Visions of Gideon’ by Sufjan Stevens will be an internet favourite, you heard it here first. Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful film that has no space for shame or judgement; only love and tenderness. It’s gorgeous, it’s painful, and it’s more than just a story. Your heart won’t be the same.
Call Me By Your Name is in cinemas now.