Critics have praised Timothée Chalamet’s stunning depiction of Elio in Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino, and they’ve discussed Armie Hammer’s indelible portrait of Oliver also with voluble praise. Indeed, I cannot imagine the one stellar interpretation without the other. Notably, Hammer’s and Chalamet’s portrayals abide seamlessly, intertwine irrevocably.
As Chalamet’s on-screen presence lures with beauty, sensitivity, and grace, Elio shines the artist. His depth runs to the spiritually ineffable. Ineluctably, Hammer’s 9-years-older Oliver, illuminates. With an atypically American sang froid and elegance, he steps into the role of Elio’s emotional counterpart, friend, mentor, lover, seer. Oliver’s decency, composure, and presence of mind overwhelm. And Hammer’s Oliver engrosses us as we watch him guide the precarious situations of yearning, desire, love, and closure between them with prodigious care.
Subtly, Hammer’s equanimity engages our better nature. With astute sensitivity he measures out Oliver’s wariness and desire for Elio by thrilling degrees. Then at Guadagnino’s timing (the screenplay by Guadagnino, James Ivory, and Walter Fasano mostly adheres to the novel), he reciprocates. What results between Elio and Oliver becomes uniquely iconic. Their connections manifest the best of any relationship whether male-female, female-female, male-male. Absent considerations of gender, they resonate transplendent humanity in divinity and weakness. This becomes what every person should attain in a relationship. Sadly, the rarity of their union-body, soul, spirit cannot be fathomed for everyone. It is born of the stars and a family that nurtures culture, spiritual values, openness, and absence of fear.
Throughout the film we watch Elio and Oliver as together they travel into their soul’s unknown. Because their journey charts new ground in themselves, they circle each other, yield, then seal an extraordinary, wondrous bond. Their glorious transformation of selves redirects their perceptions, sensibilities, personalities.
Interestingly, their relationship reveals a uniquely profound shared tenderness and wisdom. How the actors, encouraged by the director, captured such an artless, uninhibited, sincerity of oneness continually amazes me. With great skill they’ve created living individuals who manage to embody the substance of the title for they reflect different facets of each another while becoming a unified whole.
If one views Elio’s and Oliver’s exceptionalism on a superficial level through the lens of gender, one loses track of the spiritual themes, the complex narrative, the joys of the characterizations, the director’s and actors’ amazing adroitness. And one will ignore the transcendence of what Guadagnino and the cast achieve. Not only do they enlighten, clarify, and uplift our own human experience, they dispel society’s crass, stultifying folkways and strictures about what love is and must be. Assuredly, to view their relationship as being “gay” misses the point with galactic dim-wittedness.
Shepherded by Guadagnino’s directorial brilliance, and a screenplay adapted from André Aciman’s titular novel, Hammer and Chalamet create mesmerizing portraits. Because Elio and Oliver seem to be an admixture of starlight and humanity, their portrayals touch us. And we recognize ourselves in their searing and divinely human vulnerablities. Can the remarkable, poignant, heartbreaking bond between them happen between any gender? Of course, with a caveat.
Indeed, the union can only exist between extraordinary individuals, light beings who remain intellectual, profound, and starkly sensitive. For they near the platonic ideal of each other. And they elevate to a spiritual level. Yet their desire for each other, their need to meld together expresses with physical intimacies. And in many ways, this physicality becomes the only fly in the ointments of their relationship. Surely, both must work through this after Oliver’s internship concludes and he heads back to the United States and resumes his own college professorship.
Importantly, the simplistic plot allows the director to focus on the symbolism of the characters and themes. During Oliver’s internship with Professor Perlman, he stays in the incredible Italian villa for room and board in exchange for his expertise and assistance. Naturally, Elio, the Perlman’s gifted Renaissance-man (his 17-years belie his maturity) son shows Oliver around town. Additionally, he introduces him to the community and they hang together and have separate, intimate liaisons with young women.
Slowly, during their evolution they mirror each other, form chiaroscuros, separate into shadows then bond. Chalamet’s and Hammer’s process spellbinds. Because of Guadagnino’s genius decisions about cinematography, camera angels, shot compositions, pacing, haunting music, sensual lush settings, our focus intensifies on Elio and Oliver. Intentionally, their emotions become paramount. And these give rise to the arc of development. Indeed, the stresses, strains, attractions and stand-offs between them drive the narrative.
After Elio meets Oliver, whose beauty resembles that of the antique sculptures Professor Perlman and Oliver study, Elio’s being shatters. Incredibly, he plummets into a vortex of emotions. As he attempts to decipher himself, his tangled skein of feelings knot. First, we note curiosity, then admiration. Surely, he desires to be like Oliver. Next as his attraction to Oliver grows with a period of discovery, his fear rises about what he wants from Oliver. Initially, physical desire, part of his yearning, wanes then waxes. Surely, he desires to be loved by Oliver. Obsessively, he yearns to be close to him, to be with him. Ultimately, he wants to merge with him and be one.
Beyond the boundaries of a physical bonding, the hope of their union exemplifies much more and perhaps remains closer to a deliverance from oneself and all that self-doubt and self-hatred in the human condition bring. Though critics cast this a “coming of age story,” to paint it with the callowness of teenage-hood “first love” misses the depth. For the brilliant direction and lightning strokes of acting genius reveal Elio’s gradation of passions. Consequently, we empathize with Elio for his bold intensity that cannot be described so mundanely as love or hormones. Significantly, his intentions toward Oliver seem more a shattering need to purpose himself a feeling artist in the sea of humanity.
Next, we consider. But what does Oliver feel? As we follow them on bike rides in and around Elio’s home, to the nearby town, to private ponds, to evening entertainments, we note their sensibilities. Gradually, we anticipate Oliver’s involvement with the same longing as Elio’s. Though on a superficial level one might think this to be Elio’s evolving gayness, such a characterization superficializes him and Guadagnino’s overarching vision. Nevertheless, some may think their longing for the ineffable and physical in each other, their desire for symbolizing a union between them that will remain forever, to be a stretch. But the title suggests the transcendent extraordinary. Elio calls Oliver by his name and Oliver Calls Elio, Oliver. They achieve completeness in the transference.
Languidly, massaged by the exquisite setting, the Lombardian Italian summer, dazzling antique villa, lush environs, sweet cultural resplendence, they and the Perlman family entrance us. Certainly, empathetic, caring, archeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg in a fantastic performance), we’d adore for a father. And Annella (the sensitive, understanding Amira Casar), who patiently allows Elio free reign with no condemnation or judgment? Wonderful.
Especially, this glimpse of homely perfection creates a longing in us. For we want to be a part of this heavenly place and this amazing family who unabashedly kisses frequently and understands readily. Indeed, both parents create the environment of support and care that nurtures Elio’s artistic and personal evolution as an individual. And they allow him to engage in situations he chooses, creatively in such an enlarging experience as his friendship, his connection with Oliver. Invariably they know that they will be there to catch Elio if he “falls.”
However, they trust he will not fall. For they have provided a solid, artistic, intellectual and cultural foundation to guide him. Their faith in their own love compels and amazes. But if Elio would be injured, they will provide the emotional salve to help him reconcile the pain. Michael Stuhlbarg’s professor speaks immutable wisdom to Elio after Oliver leaves. By this point we identify completely with the union and we accept that for all time the professor speaks to us about not suppressing the pain of relationships and separation, for such leads to self-destruction.
Thus, with joy we note that fear, condemnation, and abuse have no place in this family or in Elio’s life. This community of goodness we thankfully enter. And that goodness shines through Elio’s and Oliver’s relationship. Though they move on from each other, the remembered union, ineffable and spiritual allows them to continue strengthening and evolving. And though Elio mourns, inevitably, he will thrive and become the person he intends to be.
Never could human beings appear so endearing, divine, and heartbreaking except in the directorial hands of Luca Guadagnino. This must-see film has garnered awards and will add more by the time award season has ended. Don’t miss it.