'Call Me By Your Name': An emotional, universal story about first love

27 Oct 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
Call Me By Your Name (window)
Call Me By Your Name (window)

Set "somewhere in the north of Italy" during the summer of 1983, Call Me By Your Name (adapted from a novel by André Aciman) tells the story of Elio, a precocious 17-year-old American-Italian boy. Elio spends the long, hot, lazy days in his family's villa reading, playing music, lounging by the pool, and flirting with local girls. When Oliver, a handsome American scholar arrives to work as his father's intern for the summer, the pair swiftly become infatuated with one another. But despite their intelligence, they struggle to find the mechanisms to communicate their feelings. Slowly, over the course of a few weeks, Elio and Oliver discover the intoxicating power of first love; a heady experience that will stay with them forever.

Elio is a remarkably bright young man. Culturally and economically privileged, he has grown up spending carefree summers in the Italian countryside that are dominated by bike rides, midnight swims, and long alfresco meals. Multi-lingual, he moves between communicating in English, French, Italian and German with ease. A fledgling musical scholar, well-read, and immersed in the world of the classics (a result of his father's academic position), there is much about Elio that is mature and sophisticated.

However, he is unmistakably still a teenager, prone to mood swings, showing off, and occasional cruelty. He remains innocent - even naïve - about emotional issues and matters of the heart. As his feelings for Oliver begin to deepen, Elio struggles to articulate his desires, even as he longs to act on them. A few years older, and with slightly more world experience, Oliver is equally tentative in his approach, brought on by a fear of rejection and humiliation, in ways that complicate his suave, confident persona.

Elio's tentative journey of exploration will strike a chord with anybody who has gone (or is going) through the same experience. By the end of the story, Elio is not necessarily happier any account of first love involves as much pain as it does joy but he is a wiser, more rounded person. His parents expose him to great cultural riches, but also encourage him to experiment, and live his life. Many parents in the 1980s would have been anxious about their child entering a same-sex relationship, but the Perlmans are notable for their quiet, unconditional support. This is poignantly expressed in a deeply moving speech given by Elio's father towards the end of the film, helping his son to realise that trying to rip out pain is to also rip out everything good that came with it.

Elio is played by Timothée Chalamet, whom audiences may recognise from an earlier role in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Immersing himself totally in the part, Chalamet arrived in Italy five weeks before filming and embarked on a course of daily Italian, piano, and guitar lessons, to better communicate Elio's cultural gifts on screen. He sought to make friends with other young people in the town and gain a sense of the unique mood and atmosphere created over a hot, hazy summer in a sleepy town. He also grew close to his co-star Armie Hammer (who plays Oliver), contributing to a chemistry between the pair that fizzles on the screen.

Filming took place in Crema, director Luca Guadagnino's hometown, lending a sense of relaxed informality to the film and contributing to its unhurried observational tone. Entire scenes pass by with seemingly no dramatic development, but which nevertheless deepen the audience's relationship with the characters on screen. As important as any of the central characters is the house itself, which tells us a huge amount about the people living there, without the need for any dialogue. This is particularly important in a film such as this, where so much of the power comes from long silences and stolen looks visual, cinematic storytelling very different to the more literary approach.

The main location was an uninhabited family home a few minutes from Crema. Six weeks before production began, the filmmakers, including set decorator Violante Visconti, gradually layered the place with the kind of furniture, objects, and decoration that might have been accumulated by the Perlman family over a lifetime. Other key practitioners on the project include Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who photographed the cult film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and musician Sufjan Stevens, who contributed two original songs to the project.

Despite its largely American central cast, Call Me By Your Name feels unmistakably European. Many masters of European cinema are influences on the film, including Jacques Rivette, Bernado Bertolucci, Eric Rohmer, Vittorio De Sica, and Jean Renoir. Another influence is Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love, starring Emily Blunt, and the film is also very reminiscent of British Merchant-Ivory productions, such as Howard's End, Maurice and The Remains of the Day. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that James Ivory the director of those films - was brought on as a screenwriter for Call Me By Your Name.

Following MoonlightGod's Own Country, Centre of my World, and Handsome Devil, Call Me By Your Name serves as another example of an extraordinary run of LGBT-centred coming-of-age stories being released in cinemas. These stories do not define their characters by sexuality. In fact, it is easy to conceive of most of them being told with heterosexual characters. But while these films all share the simple understanding that love is love, they also provide inspiring, empowering and positive representations for young LGBT people on screen, following years of marginalisation or invisibility. These are films where a character's sexuality is a part of them, but it's not the entirety of who they are, and their stories can appeal to all audiences.

While Call Me By Your Name is bound to resonate with members of the LGBT community, its story is a universal one, relevant to all young people, and seems certain to capture the hearts of anybody who has ever experienced the joys and pain of first love.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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