Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name opens with a disruption. Oliver (Armie Hammer), a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, arrives in Italy at Elio Pearlman’s (Timothée Chalamet) house where he will spend the summer working as a research assistant to Elio’s father. Elio is displaced, moving out of his room for the resident. “My room is now your room,” he tells Oliver in the first of their many loaded exchanges.
Oliver immediately begins to upset the peace of Elio’s academic, trilingual, Italian household with his inability to open soft-boiled eggs at breakfast, his ungainly height, and his rude Americanisms—like “later” and “I’m gonna pass.” The Pearlman parents find the national differences charming. Elio seems offended.
Before anything romantic happens between Oliver and Elio, the stakes are high. When they are in the frame together, they are captured either in wide shots of bike rides or walks in the piazza, or they are positioned with one of them in the foreground and the other in the background, so that they can gaze anonymously at one other. The film builds tension with images of death and corporeality—nosebleeds, scabs, buzzing flies, and an ancient statue of a man’s body pulled out of the water. At one point, Elio’s mother reads him a French fairy tale of a prince who is too afraid to tell a princess that he loves her, and chooses to die rather than to speak to her. Elio relates the story to Oliver. “So what did he do?” Oliver asks Elio, without facing him. “He fudged,” Elio tells him. It suddenly becomes obvious that Oliver and Elio have been “choosing to die.”
When they do chose to speak, they are, in a sense, challenging death. Oliver and Elio position themselves on opposite sides of a World War I memorial in the village, harkening back to a time when their countries were enemies. They let the monument separate them, as they circle around a statue commemorating one of the most lethal battles of World War I. In the words of Guadagnino, World War I “was all about young people dying.” Their national identities are alarmingly apparent. But then Elio begins to speak, and they meet on the other side, crossing enemy lines.
At first, each of Oliver’s glances and ambiguous gestures devastates Elio, and we can feel the micro-rejection that Elio detects in their interactions. Elio notices each movement of Oliver’s body, he watches the words come out of his mouth, and he stares at him kissing women. It is unclear in the beginning whether Elio is lusting after Oliver or is merely jealous of Oliver’s self-assurance and masculinity.
Even when the two finally get together, the line between romance and a merger of identities remains thin. After they first have sex, Oliver asks Elio to call him by his name. They have not only discovered each other sexually but have both found someone they can see themselves reflected in. Elio eagerly adopts parts of Oliver’s persona—wearing his shirt, putting on a Star of David necklace like his, and ultimately calling himself by Oliver’s name. He finds himself both by seeing himself in Oliver and by falling in love with Oliver. Oliver is not merely a romantic partner, but the vehicle for Elio’s reaching maturity.
Elio, at seventeen, is situated between childhood and adulthood. He is arriving at a place of sexual realization and desire, but has not yet fully developed a sense of self and so can get carried away by childish fantasies about Oliver. He falls too freely and naively into love, perhaps because he does not yet know any better, and is left gasping for air by the end of the film.
Timothée Chalamet (now the youngest Academy Award Nominated Leading Actor since the 1940s) is entirely vulnerable, giving himself over to the viewer with an almost unsettling ease. His every gesture—craning his neck, rolling eyes, slipping his hands lazily down his pants, blowing on his armpit hair—captures his dance between childhood and adulthood. It’s in these moments that we realize Call Me by Your Name is not a gay film, and maybe not even a love story, but a coming of age film. It is a film that puts weight on the formative, confused moments of late adolescence and wonders how love can lodge itself into those cracks.
The true beauty of this film lies in just how fleeting its circumstances are. The isolation of Elio’s wealthy, international family in a non-English speaking town in Italy facilitates their romance. Elio’s eerily specific transitional age, Oliver’s “gap” year before becoming a teacher, and the Pearlmans’ unusual respect for their relationship are all circumstances that make their love not only possible but rare and overly precious. And the speed and voracity with which they fall into each other make the fleeting days all the more painful. It takes Elio and Oliver all summer to come together. When they finally do, they have only a short time left. It will be over almost as soon as it has begun. This realization comes as a devastation to the audience. Oliver tells Elio, “I remember everything.” At the end of the film, we are left feeling we have been wronged, as if we are the ones experiencing loss.
Guadagnino captures something that only cinema can. His film brings you into its world—making tangible the sweaty and endless summer days, the boredom, the fresh fruit, and the excitement of something new. The film’s pace is slow and careful, rendering every subtle movement significant. Call Me By Your Name captures the wordless quality of falling in love, and the ability of film to evoke profound feeling through a release of the self.