At first glance you might suspect that Call Me By Your Name, nominated for the best picture Oscar, is another one of those pretentious European art film releases.
It has many of the warning signs: There’s the languid pace, the Italian countryside setting, academic discussions and a precocious teen who plays classical piano and speaks a number of European languages.
But it’s so much more than what it appears. Give it time and you’re likely to leave the cinema besotted with the characters and bursting with the raw emotions of first love and heartbreak.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s film, based on the novel by Andre Aciman, is a coming of age story about gifted 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who’s spending the summer of 1983 in Italy with his parents.
They are joined by the handsome Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American student who’s come to work with Elio’s father, an academic. Soon enough erotic tensions rise to the fore and Elio and Oliver grapple with their growing attraction for one another.
The film sparked controversy, especially in America, because of the age difference between the lead characters. For Europeans it’s been less of an issue. There’s a purity and truth to the film and its love story that erases any sense of impropriety. (It may be worth pointing out that the age of consent in many parts of the world, including Italy, where the film is set, is 16.)
This emotional authenticity in the romance between these young men is in large part due to the spectacular performances by Chalamet and Hammer. There is never a misstep in their passion. The characters are drawn in all the complexity of their motivations, drives and sexuality – mirroring the reality of how men love each other in an unwelcoming world.
Chalamet has the tougher challenge (and has rightly been nominated for a best actor Oscar). Playing the younger role he’s tasked with portraying the struggle to temper new, burgeoning and at times conflicting emotions, while his counterpart is a little older and more experienced in matters of the heart.
Although Elio and Oliver are the focus of the film, there’s also a standout performance in one particular scene by Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father. It’s a powerfully delivered monologue that’s revelatory and will strike a chord in many gay men who have come out to their father, willingly or otherwise.
Call Me By Your Name’s pace is indeed gloriously unhurried. The characters tan in the sun, flirt under the trees, eat (ahem – you’ll see) peaches, swim in lakes and cycle around the Italian countryside. It’s like one of those long summer holidays that some of us may have experienced in our youth.
It echoes the bittersweet melancholy at the centre of the film that reminded me of when time was less precious and everything was that much more sensual, new and open to possibilities.
What is refreshing about Call Me By Your Name is that despite being about two men in love, no one dies (as is so common when gay characters are involved). In this sense, it’s also a universal love story, affirming that love is indeed love, no matter who feels it and for whom.
This is a film to be enjoyed on every sensual level. It’s a call to action to embrace all that love brings with it. It demands that you open up your heart and, most importantly, feel (again) what it was like to love for the first time. It’s a gift to be reminded of that intoxicating experience, and Call Me By Your Name provides us with this rare opportunity with beauty and insight.