It’s probably misleading to suggest that Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous, sensual Call Me by Your Name is devoid of conflict, but the suggestion seems necessary to appreciating the movie’s simmering, shimmering uniqueness. While conflict clearly roils around in young Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) heart, this story of an unexpected summer fling that leaves a deep impression exquisitely eschews any narrative need for villainy or violence (unless one mourns peaches). It’s a movie that simply doesn’t play by standard story structure rules.
Considering this is a tale of a quiet, hidden romance that blossoms between bored, brainy teen Elio and hunky research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) in a sun-soaked early 80s summer, there are certainly plenty of opportunities to unleash external conflict on the pair.
Most gay love stories feature a physical threat or personify an obstacle that stands in the way of the couple’s happiness, so Call Me’s insistence that love can be complicated merely by life’s twists and turns is roundly refreshing, given the context. Even without that context, the movie’s invented, insular world populated entirely with kind, caring people is incredibly unusual.
Where’s the evil bigot character or the either shocked or oblivious parents that couldn’t possibly understand? Where are the town bullies or, at the very least, conversations among seemingly open-minded people that suddenly hint at anti-LGBT sentiments? They’re all nowhere to be found in this sleepy Italian village where everyone passes the days of a lazy summer by visiting the local waterhole, playing volleyball, dancing to pop tunes, and just generally being friendly and fair.
Nearly every cliché that comes inevitably with this territory has been left by the wayside, ignored, unfed, forgotten. This is a movie about good people and the ways in which life throws its curveballs subtly and carefully. At this point, we’re so conditioned to expect romantic movies, especially ones with same-sex pairings, to be rife with conflict that Call Me feels unusual at every turn, even though most scenes basically amount to a sunny patio breakfast, a breezy bike ride, a dip in a pool, and Elio flipping casually through a paperback.
Guadagnino captures the aimlessness of a warm, welcoming summer vacation so comfortably and convincingly that we can practically smell the freshness and taste the food that we see prepared and consumed throughout the whole movie. This is one of Guadagnino’s many charms, that he succeeds in awakening all our senses simply through sight and sound. And visually speaking, the movie looks good enough to eat. The slight grain visible in the lovely film photography authentically locates the picture in the pre-digital era that it so tenderly recreates.
There’s also a patience in Guadagnino’s directing and James Ivory’s screenplay that generally isn’t found in romance pictures. While love stories often try to establish all the reasons a relationship won’t or shouldn’t work in a bid to get the audience craving the satisfaction of the union, they still move at a prompt pace and establish various parameters early. Here, though, Elio and Oliver take their time before drawing close, both seemingly pursuing a pair of local girls at first until a more powerful connection is forged.
This approach allows the characters to grow separately onscreen before they grow together. Neither is dependent on the other, but eventually, they don’t want to be apart. Combined with Guadagnino’s relaxed pace and commitment to immersing us in the culture and lifestyle of the location, the result is that Chalamet and Hammer are given plenty of time and space to establish their characters and then generate their rippling chemistry.
All of this plays out against an almost impossibly opulent backdrop, which clearly adds to the filling flavour. The summer home where Elio, his family, and Oliver are stationed is a large, beautiful house that was inherited by Elio’s mother (Amira Casar) and comes complete with its own cook and a sprawling orchard out back. The family hosts intimate gatherings that often conclude with Elio masterfully playing some Bach on the piano.
Elio’s father is an archaeology professor apparently specializing in Greco-Roman sculptures, which is what Oliver is there to assist with, but the work has a casual quality to it and often involves touring the gorgeous area from mountains to the sea. In these instances, Call Me by Your Name doubles dutifully as a lavish travelogue.
Guadagnino adores decadence and he impressively illustrates not only the beauty of these things, but the characters’ shared passion for such beauty. While the sculpture work is a small part of the plot, it morphs into a motif that is woven throughout, the imagery of masculinity as defined entirely by the ideal physique recalling history and influencing the present.
That all of this comes together so smoothly is rather remarkable, but that Ivory and Guadagnino are able to tell this story cinematically without ever resorting to familiar antagonistic obstacles is additionally and especially astonishing. I’m sure some of the credit goes to author André Aciman, whose 2007 novel is being adapted here, but even then, the temptation to externalize the conflict when working in a mainstream visual medium must have been immense. There could be a million other versions of a story like this one and they would probably all include a villain of some sort. This is the version that gives all of its attention to love.