Love in a time of cautiousness
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.