What is summer?
It is a pool, moments before a body dives in and disturbs its stillness. It is a lazy afternoon spent lounging at home. It is a group of sunbathers glistening with sweat. Summer is also a period of time; a series of actions; an occupant of space within our lives. As these forces define, summer defies in response – it finds itself largely outside these boundaries of time, action and space. After all, we must ask, what is summer but a respite from the structures of reality?
Unstructured days, idle bodies and pitchers of juice. These are some of the fragments pieced together in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. Based on André Aciman’s book of the same name, the film is set in Italy during the early 1980s. The apricots are ripe, and the swimsuits are hanging outside to dry. Summertime is in full swing at the Perlman household, a rustic villa replete with ivy, leather-bound books and wooden floors that creak. It is the home of Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a respected archaeologist, his wife Annella (Amira Casar) and their 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet).
By day, the family hosts lunches that drag into the afternoon, and by night, they have dinner parties in the moonlight. They speak four languages and spend their free time lazing in their garden or reading German books together. We are envious of their elegance, but more so, of how effortless they all seem. Can you blame them? For them, a life of the mind is the only life worth leading.
The film’s focus is on Elio, the precocious son, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American student invited to stay with the Perlmans for the summer. Elio is lanky, slightly awkward and reticent – in most measures, a normal teenager, except one who casually transcribes music in his free time. Oliver, with his towering figure and chiseled body, is much like the classical statues that Mr. Perlman unearths and studies. He is brazen yet mysterious, charming yet frustrating. These qualities become a source of friction for the two, who are largely inscrutable to each other. Elio addresses Oliver coldly, but with curiosity – always in search of his elusive presence. Oliver, on the other hand, is seductive in his dismissiveness. “Later!” is his tagline before leaving any place; the instant it is said, the man is gone.
This friction becomes charged with tension as Elio develops feelings for his father’s guest. His jealousy is apparent when Oliver dances with Chiara (Victoire Du Bois) instead of him. Elio’s eyes cannot help but stray as he sees the American visitor changing in the next room. His bare shoulders seem to shudder out of nervousness as Oliver tries to massage them. Desire has laid down its roots, from the grasp of which Elio cannot escape.
From these roots, we witness something bloom. Is it the budding of love or lust? Is it the blossoming of a romance or a friendship? Is it a combination of a sort? Maybe arriving at the exact answer does not matter, for intimacy comes in various forms.
Call Me By Your Name is a testament to the beauty found in the long, listless days of summer, the first pangs of love and desire and the difficulties of growth. Each frame seems straight out of a painting, the fruit trees verdant and the water’s reflection clear as crystal. The film often calls for a suspension of belief, with its elegance seeming too perfect and its languor much too beautiful. There is a reason why its exact location remains unsaid, described only as “somewhere in northern Italy.” In viewers’ eyes, “somewhere” and “nowhere” become one and the same.
Yet, as this fantasy is fleshed out, we realize that even this world – one more Edenic than Eden itself – finds some basis in reality. Does our world not seem more fictive than real whenever we find ourselves in love’s throes? The film provides its take on this question by way of Guadagnino’s sensual touch.
The director reminds us that love is not only a state of feeling — it is an intense, all-consuming state of being, one that leaves us stranded helplessly between the real and the surreal. He places this truth at the film’s core, for he does not simply tell us about love; he speaks in its language, and he sees life through its lens.
Chalamet brings an emotional depth to Elio’s character. More profoundly, he conveys the uncertainty central to his changing identity in terms of who he is, what he wants and who he will become. The chemistry between Hammer and him is electric, though the latter at times seems more like a static bronze sculpture than a man at his own personal crossroads. The remaining cast performances, concluding with a rousing speech by Stuhlbarg, bolster the minor shortcomings of an otherwise remarkable ensemble.
Call Me By Your Name remains trapped within the amber of summer; in it, the flies still buzz, the sun shines and the swim trunks are left out to dry. Upon entering this world, so wonderfully alive, we can do nothing but linger, unable to leave it completely.