Love in a time of cau­tious­ness

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - FILM REVIEW - By Demetrios Matheou

THE films that sig­nalled Ital­ian Luca Guadagnino as a ma­jor tal­ent in in­ter­na­tional cinema, I Am Love and A Big­ger Splash, both fea­tured the same eye-catch­ing di­chotomy: on the sur­face beau­ti­ful peo­ple in gor­geous lo­ca­tions, shot in one dreamy com­po­si­tion af­ter another; be­neath, emo­tions that were dark, vo­latile, wait­ing to com­bust.

In his new film, how­ever, all of the sur­face beauty seeps into the sub­strata. A love story be­tween two young men, it’s set in a time and place that dic­tates cau­tion for its pro­tag­o­nists. Yet what grips is not drama, melo­drama, anx­i­ety or os­tracism, but the nu­ance and del­i­cacy of the sto­ry­telling. It’s a film of con­stant plea­sures – vis­ual, au­ral, in­tel­lec­tual, sen­sual and emo­tional.

It shares one no­tice­able dy­namic with A Big­ger Splash: an out­sider ar­rives into an es­tab­lished do­mes­tic set-up and causes a cer­tain fris­son. But whereas, in the ear­lier film, Ralph Fi­ennes’s bad boy mu­sic pro­ducer crashed rock star Tilda Swin­ton’s love nest with the ex­plicit in­ten­tion to cre­ate havoc, the ar­rival of twenty-some­thing Amer­i­can scholar Oliver (Ar­mie Ham­mer) at the hol­i­day home of an em­i­nent art his­to­rian and his fam­ily, in north­ern Italy in the sum­mer of 1983, has an al­to­gether sub­tler, slow­burn ef­fect.

Ev­ery year Perl­man (Michael Stuhlbarg), his trans­la­tor wife An­nella (Amira Cae­sar) and their son Elio (Ti­mothée Cha­la­mat) hol­i­day in their sprawl­ing, hand­some villa; Oliver is the lat­est sum­mer in­tern to help the pro­fes­sor with his work. The guest has a con­fi­dent, self-pos­sessed, ful­some way about him, quickly set­tling in both with his hosts and the lo­cals – whether im­me­di­ately join­ing the old fel­las in their card game, or prov­ing a hit with the girls on the disco dance floor. The only one to re­sist Oliver’s charm, it seems, is 17-yearold Elio.

On one level Elio is ex­cep­tional, a gifted mu­si­cian and com­poser; on another, he’s a typ­i­cal teen – sullen, bored, hopelessly awk­ward with his hol­i­day girl­friend, and un­moved by the sort of va­ca­tion op­por­tu­nity others would die for. “What does one do here?” Oliver asks him. His an­swer: “Wait for the sum­mer to end.”

As this good-look­ing pair cy­cle around the lo­cal vil­lages, swim, eat won­der­ful food al fresco, oc­ca­sion­ally join Perl­man in his search for relics and gen­er­ally bask in the house­hold eru­di­tion, an ini­tial air of mys­tery and low-level ten­sion builds. Elio’s feel­ings to­wards the older man are at first un­clear; what reads as hos­til­ity could eas­ily be some­thing else. For his part, Oliver’s tac­tile cu­rios­ity with the teen says one thing, his flir­ta­tion with a lo­cal girl another – at least to the in­ex­pe­ri­enced Elio, who has no idea how to in­ter­pret a man who, quite clearly, is used to lead­ing his real sex life in the shad­ows.

Their shared be­hav­iour is ten­ta­tive and elu­sive, un­til even­tu­ally each fa­cade will crack. The ques­tion is, how will the story then play out?

The novel by An­dré Aci­man has been adapted by the vet­eran di­rec­tor James Ivory, the An­glophile Amer­i­can whose films in­clude such pe­riod clas­sics as

A Room With A View, Howards End and The Re­mains Of The Day. It’s a lit­tle re­mark­able how well a 79-year-old cap­tures the mixed emo­tions of first love. With Ivory’s well-judged script as the bedrock, Guadagnino steers his ac­tors to­wards a sce­nario that be­comes both erotic and deeply touch­ing.

Spe­cial men­tion ought to be given to Stuhlbarg, who presents a fa­ther who lit­er­ally seems heaven-sent. The at­mos­phere is greatly en­hanced by a lively sound­track that in­cludes clas­si­cal, Ital­ian pop and two new tracks by the Amer­i­can singer-song­writer Suf­jan Stevens.

Call Me By Your Name mas­ter­fully cap­tures the mixed emo­tions of first love.

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