Director: Luca Guadagnino
Stars: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg
Food and sex have long been intermingled in art, with all manner of delicacies plummed for their erotic potentiality; the echoes of bodily shapes keying us in to the artist’s intent. With that come the complexities of sexuality; of things deemed acceptable or not, illicit or allowed. Luca Guadagnino’s sun-kissed ode to rose-tinted memory and first love takes place in Northern Italy on an orchard. And though the inhabitants of the story are all academics, they are surrounded by apricots and peaches; trees flush with heavy, juicy burdens.
In what will inevitably become one of the film’s most talked about scenes, 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) examines the sexual possibilities of a peach. The shape is suggestive in itself; Elio admires its buttock-like curves, pitted with an anus where it was plucked from the tree. Fingering this newly exposed, delectable orifice he becomes drizzled in its juices; digging out the pips he becomes so enamoured with the fruit that he penetrates it. The yawning hole he creates and leaves oozing is suggestively vaginal. This one scene of a young man making love to fruit explodes with the frisson of a libido in overdrive, but also quite sweetly (and stickily) manages to symbolise the fluidity of sexuality. Objects are important in Call Me By Your Name. The peach is a loaded one. Neither one thing nor the other.
It’s the summer of 1983. Elio is a gifted young pianist and lives with his parents. His father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), entertains a scholar every summer to work with him in the research and discovery of lost or sunken artifacts (more objects, more memories). This summer that student is Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American Adonis who takes over Elio’s own bed. Our young protagonist has an eager girl on the sidelines (Esther Garrel as Marzia), but he develops a great crush on Oliver and his strident, confident ways. What’s more, Oliver is equally as interested by the professor’s son. The two of them dance the dance of burgeoning and possibly unspeakable romance between meals and underneath the swaying branches of the orchard.
The film’s preoccupation with food doesn’t begin and end at the peach. Early on, Elio is most fascinated by Oliver when he is consuming anything, watching as the American inelegantly gobbles down the contents of a boiled egg or quenches his thirst from a bottle of water. Oliver is someone who devours things; his approach to life is hedonistic, but not narcissistic. He is a man who simply says, “yes” because to experience is better than to not. This is the film’s ultimate mandate. Elio finds this magnetic and spends as much time in the older man’s company as he can.
While the film’s title will come to explain itself and resonate through to one of its final scenes, a perfectly suitable alternative might’ve been ‘Amphibians’. Water and swimming preoccupy many scenes of the film, be it the aforementioned thirst that Oliver seeks to quench, or the many times we find the two of them bathing. Water is another sexually suggestive element in art, and it laps at these characters at every given opportunity. Guadagnino has evident love for their bodies, but the film is not lecherous or leering in its eye. If anything it shies from the explicit and affords privacy when it feels the need to.
Given the nature of their mutual attraction, the film’s key scene in which it is discussed for the first time subverts expectation. Taking place in one long, impressive take, Elio and Oliver confront the topic in the middle of a village square, as they both walk opposite ways around a small communal garden, in effect having to broadcast their words to one another over a verdant mid-space. What one might have expected to be hushed and secretive is anything but. The question is, is anyone paying attention? Clearly not.
In fact the assumed dramatic tensions one might expect to find in Call Me By Your Name repeatedly refuse to appear. As Elio becomes sexually involved with Marzia, one waits for the narrative to close in on the inevitable heartbreak. That moment will come, but it is not mined for melodrama, and by the end of the film it is forgiven. Gay cinema is heavy with examples of forbidden romances that uncoil in shame and collateral damage. What makes Call Me By Your Name feel different, then, is the sense that the consequences are no wider than the bruises to the hearts of Elio and Oliver as the summer’s end comes into sight. The other great dramatic shoe waiting to drop is the familial one. How will Professor Perlman react if he were to learn that Oliver has been intimate with his son? The question dangles; it’s answer is one of the film’s most beautiful surprises, giving Stuhlbarg the monologue of his career.
Elsewhere objects come to the fore again. A cheap digital watch holds our attention throughout an entire day in the film’s internal diary. It’s positioning and relation to Elio becomes suspenseful as the young man counts down the hours to an important confrontation. The object itself, small and innocuous, becomes heavy in the frame though its relative size remains small. Our eyes seek it out as the sequence unfurls.
This smartly woven chain of scenes aside, the removal of so much expected dramatic tension does affect how it feels watching it. At 132 minutes, this languid summer comes to feel a shade over exposed, and the very lack of usual hand holds makes us unsure of the film’s final shape and thus how to gauge where we are in the story overall. In short it can feel like coasting. Call Me By Your Name is idealised like a memory. The whole picture feels like it is taking place in the mind of Elio, older, as he recollects on perhaps the defining year of his life. Memories change their own shape over time; some elements are softened, others become more specific. That’s how this film feels; not like the events themselves, but how they have endured in recollection. Like the artifacts pulled from the sea by Professor Perlman, they are not originals but sacred relics onto which new significance has been applied. Fittingly, the film ripens in the aftermath once you can reflect on it and accentuate its perfections. The rest falls away.