MIFF 2017: Call Me By Your Name

“Is it better to speak or die?”

This question lies at the heart and soul of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, a sumptuous romance set in northern Italy in the summer of 1983.

Elio (Timothée Chalamet), enjoying another quiet summer with his family as any rich 17-year-old American would do, spends his days lounging by the pool, eating apricots, reading and playing the piano, and his nights cavorting with the local girls. Oliver (Armie Hammer), a statuesque doctoral student hired by Elio’s father to assist his research, arrives to their estate and awakens in Elio a budding lust that he struggles to understand, much less act upon.

Oliver is improbably handsome – propaganda images of the perfect Aryan superman come to mind – and is fond of unbuttoned shirts and suggestively skimpy shorts. He’s the image of confidence and self-assuredness, and he invigorates the estate with a playboy energy, lying by the pool working on a manuscript or playing a (shirtless) game of volleyball with local residents, as Elio sits awkwardly in the shadow of a tree watching on, unsure how to navigate the maelstrom of teenage hormones that overtake him.

As the sunny days meander by, the two men dance around one another, slowly and tentatively giving in to the desire that dare not speak its name. Theirs is an attraction that at first confuses Elio and, given the era and circumstance, poses questions of acceptance and decorum. This is where the film’s central question, posed in a quote from the Heptaméron, becomes achingly pertinent: is it better to speak or die? Speak and risk everything, or don’t speak and condemn yourself to a life without anything worth risking.

Their lust is expressed through fleeting moments of tenderness spent in secret on the banks of a crystalline river, or hidden in the forgotten rooms of the sprawling estate. Unable yet to answer the question of speak or die, and deterred by Oliver’s occasional aloofness, Elio looks elsewhere for an outlet and finds one in Marzia (Esther Garrel), an Italian girl of his own age who provides not so much love as a sexual relationship of convenience.

But he is unable to ignore Oliver’s primal attraction for too long before thrusting himself back into its clutches. For his part, Oliver – aware of the age difference between the two, not to mention the impropriety of pursuing his employer’s son – is by turns bashful and playful, finding wicked delight in charging their conversations with an unbearable tension before abruptly taking leave of the situation with a cheery “later!”

Though much of their physical contact occurs off-screen, Call Me By Your Name is simply overflowing with sensuality. Guadagnino’s wandering frame contrasts the quiet stillness of the landscape with the raging desire lurking just beneath the surface of his two lead characters, and the director’s choice to shoot on a single, unchanged lens — placing the camera between the characters in intimate moments, never giving too much context — resists allowing the two men to truly give themselves to one another on screen. The viewer is always delicately balanced at the explosive centre of their sexual tension.

With deft performances from Hammer, Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg (in a brilliantly understated supporting role as Elio’s father), Call Me By Your Name ebbs and flows with the energy of its two main characters, but its sun-drenched visual beauty remains constant. By the time Elio and Oliver finally embrace each other with the fullness of their hearts and bodies, the question has only one answer: they speak, but it is a conversation in the wrong place and the wrong time.

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