Review: Call Me by Your Name
Luca Guadagnino plays out the final moments of his latest empathetic masterpiece to the credits. It’s a crushing moment, but it’s also a moment that lingers on the extraordinary beauty of what came before. Much like another great cinematic work of empathy earlier this year, Good Time, Call Me by Your Name soars in these final minutes. It gently nudges us out of the frame of the screen, letting us stew in the bittersweet ephemerality of Elio and Oliver’s love story.
Call Me by Your Name tells the story of the budding romance between Elio (Timothée Chalamet)—a young man helping his parents conduct research, as the opening credits say, “somewhere in Northern Italy”—and Oliver (Armie Hammer)—a student of Elio’s father. What begins as a simple probing touch—a firm hand on a shoulder—blossoms into a passionate and loving relationship in an Edenic retreat. As Elio explores his bisexuality, he gradually and flirtatiously spars with Oliver. The two trade knowledge on classic Roman art and music in a playful game of one-upmanship that slowly builds into something far more intimate.
Where so many films would be content to tell us how Elio and Oliver feel about one another, Guadagnino shows us. He shows us through the saturated blues and reds that trickle across the frame of the screen like the fountain Elio and Oliver swim in. He shows us through the probing and shy glances they exchange while walking through the cobblestone streets of an Italian paradise. He shows us through the way they look at each other in rapture and blissful harmony while the other looks away lost in thought. This, much like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, is a film constructed of glances and posturing, of sensual imagery and visual metaphors.
However, this isn’t to say that James Ivory’s script is lacking. To the contrary, when Call Me by Your Name does tell us how its characters feel, it does so with grace and with concision. Few films this year do so much with so few words. Both Elio and Oliver say so much with so little, in part because each is afraid to be the first one to take the leap of faith, and in part because each dare not do anything to dampen the crackling electricity that courses through the air between them. And, in one of Michael Stuhlbarg’s best performances this year (which is saying a lot given how extraordinary he is in The Shape of Water), he delivers my favorite monologue of the year. It’s touching and eloquent, it’s utterly compassionate and profoundly moving. It’s everything you wish and hope for Elio to hear and it’s delivered with not an ounce of saccharine sentimentality or weak emotion; it’s just honest. When the film’s final moments do happen though, Ivory pushes hard on the breaks and lets the performances do the talking.
Call Me by Your Name is one of the best-looking, best-acted, and best-written films of the year. It’s sensual and heartbreaking, it’s gorgeous and subtle, it’s beautiful and haunting. This is, in many ways, a film as film should be: a potent and potently visual expression of emotion and empathy. It manages to explore struggle while understanding that, at the end of the day, the struggle isn’t what truly matters; it’s the love that matters.