FILM The Per­fec­tion of Youth

Luke Davies on Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Luke Davies on Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’

“Our hearts and our bod­ies are given to us only once,” says ar­chae­ol­o­gist and scholar Pro­fes­sor Perl­man (Michael Stuhlbarg), by way of fa­therly ad­vice, to his 17-year-old son Elio (Tim­o­thée Cha­la­met), in Luca Guadagnino’s rav­ish­ing minia­ture Call Me by Your Name (in na­tional re­lease 26 De­cem­ber). “To make your­self feel noth­ing, so as not to feel any­thing – what a waste.” In Guadagnino’s sun-drenched adap­ta­tion of An­dré Aci­men’s 2007 novel of sex­ual awak­en­ing, this ex­plo­ration of feel­ing – from the purely sen­sual and tac­tile to the emo­tion­ally height­ened and over­wrought – is em­bed­ded into the mus­cu­la­ture of ev­ery frame and ev­ery scene. It’s sum­mer, 1983, in Lom­bardy in north­ern Italy, where Elio lives in a warm and gor­geous villa with his fa­ther and mother An­nella (Amira Casar), a trans­la­tor. There are books every­where, and mu­sic, and vis­i­tors, and long out­door lunches. Cows low in the back­ground. Crick­ets chirp. The sun beats down piti­lessly. Elio flirts with Marzia (Es­ther Gar­rel), his reg­u­lar vis­i­tor. Bi­cy­cle seems the main mode of trans­port. Into the idyll comes Oliver (Ar­mie Ham­mer), a charm­ing Amer­i­can work­ing on his doc­tor­ate, who has scored this year’s cov­eted sum­mer re­search in­tern­ship with Pro­fes­sor Perl­man. Oliver is like some force – grander and more mys­te­ri­ous than the teenage girls with

whom Elio whiles away the sum­mer – who bursts into Elio’s Gar­den of Eden. At break­fast Elio watches fas­ci­nated as Oliver de­vours his boiled egg; there seems, to Elio, un­fil­tered ravenous­ness in the Amer­i­can vis­i­tor. Oliver is all non-re­flec­tion. Elio – whose very essence as a teenager is ag­o­nised self-ab­sorp­tion – is fas­ci­nated by this, and drawn to it. He ob­serves how eas­ily and lan­guidly Oliver fits into so­cial life in the town, play­ing cards with the old men in the cafe. Pre­co­cious Elio tries to im­press Oliver, play­ing Bach’s Capric­cio on the De­par­ture of His Beloved Brother on both gui­tar and pi­ano. (Cha­la­met, a marvel, is Amer­i­can-born but speaks flaw­less French and Ital­ian in the mul­ti­lin­gual film.) On the sur­face, Oliver pays Elio lit­tle mind; or rather, he at first keeps his dis­tance. A kind of dance be­gins, deftly chore­ographed by Guadagnino. What do the par­ents see, or know, or un­der­stand, of what un­folds? Cinema’s gay love sto­ries have long em­pha­sised the for­bid­den and the trans­gres­sive as the nar­ra­tive ve­hi­cles that move to­wards doomed out­comes: so-called so­ci­etal vi­o­la­tions get pun­ished. The won­der of Call Me by Your Name lies in just how much it sets up the typ­i­cal “this can not go well” anx­i­eties, and then sub­verts them. In­stead, the film op­er­ates as a paean to mem­ory, to the per­fec­tion of youth, and, in no small mea­sure, to ado­les­cent male horni­ness. It is per­haps also – and this is where it tran­scends the sun-speck­led joys of its sur­faces to be­come a more wist­ful and pow­er­ful med­i­ta­tion – about par­ents try­ing to un­der­stand and sup­port their chil­dren. One cosy af­ter­noon, the pro­fes­sor and An­nella and Elio snuggle on the couch while An­nella trans­lates from the Hep­taméron, the 16th-cen­tury col­lec­tion of fables by Mar­guerite de Navarre. In the story she reads, a young knight ob­sesses about the ob­ject of his de­sire. “De­spite the friend­ship that blos­soms be­tween them,” An­nella trans­lates, “or per­haps be­cause of that friend­ship, the young man is afraid to speak up.”

The pac­ing is per­fect. There isn’t an ounce of fat. Ev­ery line of di­a­logue does its work with min­i­mal ef­fort and with­out ex­cess.

“Is it bet­ter to speak or die?” the knight asks. “It’s bet­ter to speak,” the princess tells him, in the story. “So, does he speak?” asks Oliver, later, when Elio re­lays the gist of the story to Oliver. “No,” says Elio. “He fudges.” Alone in his room, rest­less on his bed, Elio writes in his notebook about his grow­ing ob­ses­sion with Oliver. Sneak­ing into Oliver’s room, he in­hales the guest’s swim trunks, pulls them over his head. The mo­ment is com­i­cally touch­ing, but strangely com­pelling in its grace-filled angst. Clearly Elio doesn’t know what he wants, or even ex­actly what it is that he’s feel­ing. Or rather, he is all want. When he ac­com­pa­nies his fa­ther and Oliver to a lake where a Greek-age bronze (a statue of a young, naked man) is be­ing brought up from the depths, it seems a per­fect im­age of Elio’s emerg­ing sex­u­al­ity. Else­where, sort­ing through slides of other Hel­lenis­tic stat­ues with Oliver, Pro­fes­sor Perl­man speaks of the “age­less am­bi­gu­ity” of the stat­ues – “as if they’re dar­ing you to de­sire them”. As it turns out, Elio will work out what he wants, and find his voice a lit­tle more read­ily than the knight in the fa­ble. “Is there any­thing you don’t know?” Oliver says to him, in the town square, af­ter Elio has schooled him on some point of Ital­ian his­tory. “I know noth­ing, Oliver,” says Elio, with the sense of calami­tous sor­row only a 17-year-old can muster. “Well,” replies Oliver, “you seem to know more than any­one else around here.” “If you only knew how lit­tle I know about the things that mat­ter,” replies Elio. “What things that mat­ter?” asks Oliver. There’s a pause. “You know what things,” says Elio. “Why are you telling me this?” asks Oliver. “Be­cause I thought you should know,” says Elio, with faux non­cha­lance. “Be­cause I wanted you to know. Be­cause there’s no one else I can say this to but you.” James Ivory, who in his hey­day with Is­mail Mer­chant made the ex­tra­or­di­nary “tril­ogy” of A Room with a View, Howard’s End and The Re­mains of the Day (chalk­ing up 25 Os­car nom­i­na­tions in the process), is 89 years old now, and has writ­ten, for Guadagnino, a mas­ter­ful screen­play. The pac­ing is per­fect. There isn’t an ounce of fat. Ev­ery line of di­a­logue does its work with min­i­mal ef­fort and with­out ex­cess. De­spite the sense it cre­ates that we are get­ting a glimpse into some­thing both in­tense and in­ti­mate – the pri­vate de­lin­eations of a nascent sex­ual epiphany – the movie has an emo­tional grandeur, even as it moves to­wards the fin­ish line with a mea­sured pace. Guadagnino, with cine­matog­ra­pher Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, makes of Ivory’s blue­print not just a golden idyll, sen­sual and lush in the ar­range­ment of ev­ery frame, but a kind of throw­back: in the film’s tone and tex­ture, one thinks of Ital­ian cinema of the early ’70s. (Guadagnino has called the film “my homage to the fa­thers of my life: my own fa­ther, and my cin­e­matic ones: Renoir, Rivette, Rohmer, Ber­tolucci …”) Cha­la­met doesn’t hit a false note as a teenager awak­en­ing to his first pas­sion. This in­cludes the sub­tly hi­lar­i­ous con­stant ad­just­ment of his rag­ing boner – a comic riff I’d not seen han­dled with such af­fec­tion­ate warmth in a film be­fore. There’s a tense hu­mour, too, in Elio’s ner­vous day of clock-watch­ing af­ter Oliver leaves him a note say­ing, “Grow up. I’ll see you at mid­night.” Mid­night may be a long time com­ing for Elio, so horny that he man­ages, de­spite his ex­cru­ci­at­ing an­tic­i­pa­tion, to have

sex with Marzia (with whom he ap­par­ently lost his vir­gin­ity a cou­ple of days ear­lier) dur­ing the wait. Guadagnino has spo­ken of how he did not want Call Me by Your Name to be a “hy­per-in­tel­lec­tu­alised” en­deav­our: “I want it to be like a box of choco­lates.” It’s an oddly self-dep­re­cat­ing com­ment, since the film is no pleas­antly whim­si­cal Amélie. It seems, rather, to be both a cel­e­bra­tion and an el­egy, with heft. The novel is a mem­ory piece – Aci­man is a noted Proust scholar – but the film’s slow burn to­wards sex­ual con­sum­ma­tion, for all that it is bathed in the glow of an ir­re­triev­ably lost era, for all that it presents it­self ele­gia­cally, feels very much an­chored in a sense of pre­sent­ness and ur­gency. The villa may be a Gar­den of Eden, but eroti­cism, de­sire and anx­i­ety, in the hands of a 17-year-old with an ex­cess of sex­ual en­ergy, are not the most lan­guorous forces in cinema; and the haunt­ing of first love no small mat­ter.

Then the speech takes a left turn, and what may be one of cinema’s great “Dad” speeches en­sues.

The film posits that love is a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, ca­pa­ble of chang­ing us for the bet­ter and for­ever, de­spite and not be­cause of those in­her­ent anx­i­eties. The film hangs back from sug­gest­ing whether it is Oliver or Elio who has more agency in the un­fold­ing of the nar­ra­tive. It hints that Elio’s par­ents see the en­counter as be­nign enough. “You like him, don’t you?” says An­nella. “Ev­ery­one likes Oliver,” shrugs Elio. It is Pro­fes­sor Perl­man who recog­nises the spe­cific won­der – that mo­ment never to be re­peated – of his son’s com­plex, tran­scen­dent ex­pe­ri­ence on the edge of adult­hood. “You two had a nice friend­ship,” he says, and we sense a kind of awk­ward parental min­imis­ing about to un­fold. Then the speech takes a left turn, and what may be one of cinema’s great “Dad” speeches en­sues. “We rip out so much of our­selves to be cured of things faster,” says the pro­fes­sor, hint­ing at a lost op­por­tu­nity from his own past, “that we go bank­rupt by the age of 30.” The film, sug­gest­ing we must em­brace what Joseph Camp­bell has called “joy­ful par­tic­i­pa­tion in the sor­rows of life”, is a plea against that bank­ruptcy.

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