“but this time when I touched him something happened in him and in me which made this touch different from any touch either of us had ever known.” – Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (1956)
Luca Guadagnino’s latest movie, Call Me By Your Name, based on André Aciman’s book of the same name, has become a small sensation since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. It has been written and talked about so much in the past year that one would be hard-pressed to dissuade anyone that it is not already written into the cinematic canon of 2017. Guadagnino has finally entered the mainstream consciousness — after enjoying high prestige and admiration in smaller circles for movies like I am Love and A Bigger Splash — and it seems the stage has been set for the Italian sensualist to have an illustrious career for years to come.
It is difficult to come in so late to write about a movie in which it seems everything has already been said, and eloquently so. Call Me By Your Name (CMBYN) is an endlessly rich movie. It is textured and layered to the point of obsession, each viewing is a catalyst for new discoveries and revelations. One can talk for hours about the profusely vulnerable and open performances from Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer — and the brilliance of the rest of the cast. One can talk about how Walter Fasano’s touches in the edit infuse the movie with an ethereal rhythm that, through cuts and edits as lustrous as silk, complement the thematic threads of memories. One can talk about André Aciman’s clear fascination with the past; how it shapes the now; how he doesn’t as much interrogate the past as he allows it to speak, like a John Berger with more lustful sensibilities; how he searches for happiness in painful memories. All these topics (and more) are valuable and essential (see recommended reading list below). In an attempt to keep this short, I’ve decided to focus on how Guadagnino’s movie manages to transcend the (admittedly fantastic) Aciman book, through his deep understanding of the physicality and tactility inherent in a visual medium.
CMBYN is about touch. It is as much about touch as it is about love or memories or coming of age or sexual explorations or peaches. In Guadagnino’s movie, the characters are deeply entwined within the texture of the sun-drenched Italian countrysides. They touch and feel, they search and inquire, as they move through the enormous vacation house and its gardens, the local mountain-springs and the quiet piazzas of 1980s Italy.
In the first scene of the movie we see Elio (Timothée Chalamet) rummage through a closet, tossing clothes across the room as his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel) watches on. A car comes up the driveway and they rush to the window, Elio with a sly “l’usurpateur” about the newest student coming to study and work with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) for the summer. They look down out the window, and from a small taxi emerges the Adonis, the Olympian, the Hellenistically sculptured, Oliver (Hammer). The Americano oozes confidence, as remarked by Elio from above, as he firmly shakes the hand of Mr. Perlman and jovially plays to his jokes. It may seem unimportant, a small detail, but that this is the first scene in which we see Oliver signals two things (mainly): first Elio’s quick-headed judgment of the Americano as “confident,” but also that this is a movie where touch tells as much of the story as any word or any composition. This handshake, firm, straight, muscular, face-to-face, lulls us into the same assumptions of Oliver that Elio has; an assumption a lot of critics seem unable to shake throughout the movie. Oliver, tired from the journey, rushes off to bed before the movie allows us much more time to get to know him, but the very first scene the next day cements this idea of touch. As Oliver, rested and calm, saunter down the stairs, he stops to feel a large fabric tapestry. As his hand slides softly down the fabric, creating waves and ripples from floor to ceiling, one can imagine the dust that has collected on it over the years as the Perlmans walk by it day in and day out. These scenes, and others that follow, are important to set up how Oliver (and Elio) express themselves through touch.
When Oliver first dares to hint at his possible affection for Elio, he does so by placing his hand on Elio’s naked shoulder. Under the pretext of “loosening him up,” Oliver puts his hand on Elio and lets it sit there for a moment. Here Guadagnino is insistent to keep the camera on Elio’s face and reaction, yet keeping Oliver’s hand in the frame. This continues throughout. When they pull a statue from the sea, Oliver delicately moves his fingers over the statue’s lips, a gesture he repeats a few scenes later on Elio before the two share their first kiss. Later, when Oliver, with a teasing expression, grabs hold of Elio’s arm when he asks if he has the time. They have schemed to meet at midnight, and at midday — in front of Mrs. Perlman — Oliver dares and entices Elio with a single touch. When midnight comes the two dare to face one another on the balcony their rooms share on the second floor, and as Elio silently walks out to Oliver, placing his palm beside his on the railing, Oliver places his hand on top of Elio’s, and the romance, the affection, the desire, the love is confirmed. This short and simple movement, this quiet moment, is different than all the others, not only for Elio and Oliver, but for us. They have confessed fully to their affections, they have dared, silently, to confess what they want from the other, and the movie takes us into one of the most profoundly beautiful and affirmative scenes of 2017.
This is how they communicate their affections to one another. When words fail they can reach out and speak through these gestures. It becomes their language — silent but voluminous — and it allows them to truly convey and connect; to express their affections, desires, lusts, frustrations. It works because Guadagnino indulges it. Guadagnino understands how powerful even the slightest gesture can be and how the most minuscule one can be magnified to vast proportions when put on film.
We tend to observe the people around us, whether we are aware of it or not. We can assume a lot about a person by the way they carry themselves or how they interact with the people around them, but a quick flick of the hand in the real world won’t betray much information. In a film, however, it can tell a whole story. Enhanced and amplified on a concrete surface, even the slightest touch can express more than a thousand words, and in this way, CMBYN tells us a story of innumerable words.
Luca Guadagnino’s previous film, A Bigger Splash, was one of excess and vibrancy – the Rolling Stones blare from a sound system as a scantily clad Ralph Fiennes dances in a euphoric roar; sun-drenched bodies are scattered pool-side, golden hair dripping on the hot stone as the pale-blue water reflects and mirrors the depravity and exuberance on the surface. CMBYN is equally vibrant — equally alive — but whereas A Bigger Splash devolves into a crisis of excess, Call Me By Your Name is a quiet ode to the now, to the pain and pleasures of love, and the momentary experiences that will never be forgotten. It remembers the one second in which your heart and your body — your entire being — kindles from a single touch from the person you love.
Essential reading for Call Me By Your Name
Words are futile devices: On Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name – Joanna Di Mattia, Seventh Row
Armie Hammer is more than an object of desire – Orla Smith, Seventh Row
Your missing it – Tricks with time in Call Me By Your Name – Alex Heeney, Seventh Row
I Couldn’t Write Silence: Call Me By Your Name Author André Aciman on the Oscar-Nominated Film Adaptation of His Novel – André Aciman, Vanity Fair