“How do you define your “first love” experience? Was it “fall in love”? or was it “fall in lust”?
Watching Call Me by Your Name for an Indonesian like me provides an interesting perspective, especially due to a recent event. It’s because this movie surges to attention in the midst of heated protests from some (well, many, actually) Indonesians, following The Constitutional Court’s decision to reject a petition filed by conservative academics to make a premarital and gay sex a crime punishable by up to five years in.
The decision, then, leads to an allegation that The Constitutional Court had premarital and gay sex acts legalized, which is not the true case. What makes the protesters have such an allegation? Primarily, they don’t possess the ability to read and understand the decision comprehensively.
I’m not going to discuss or debate the case any further in my review for Call Me by Your Name. But, there’s a point in my aforementioned paragraphs which also functions as a requirement you need to have before watching the film: the ability to read and understand comprehensively, and to have that, you need to: have your mind opened, and reduce your prejudice.
While the movie never shies away from admitting the fact that it portrays a homoeroticism story, the quintessence of Call Me by Your Name is actually about the very basic event in human existence, that I believe, everyone experiences it: first love. But the crucial keyword then prompts us to another question, “How do you define your “first love” experience? Was it “fall in love”; or was it “fall in lust”?
The chain questions don’t immediately come into our view in the early duration of André Aciman’s novel ecranisation of the same title. They’ll pop up right after the on-screen events end, but they are going to linger in your mind. Call Me by Your Name is so powerful that those questions keep lingering and lasting on your mind, even long after you finished watching it. The questions are not typical kind of ones that bring you into an intense debate with your colleagues. But, you’ll keep those questions to yourself, instead, since you’re the only one who knows the answer.
What makes Call Me by Your Name so powerful to the point it raises an emendation question is how the script by James Ivory and the direction by Luca Guadagnino in adapting the novel. The novel tells its story from the main protagonist, the older and mature Elio Perlman’s point of view who recalls the moments of him having a passionate same-sex summer fling with his father’s intern scholar, an American Jewish, Oliver, who was 24 years old at that time. The memory-piece and first person POV approach, as the main narrative is told in flashback using framing device, in the novel makes the story very subjective that we have to adhere to what he feels. Quite the contrary, the film adaptation uses the third person POV and sets in the present time that it enables us for being a spectator who’s judging what happens on the screen based on our own perspective and opinion.
It doesn’t mean that the book is less captivating compared to the film, though. The book itself is a delicate work and its choice of using the first person POV allows us to capture the intensity of being behind Elio’s eyes. And it’s tremendous. But the film lets us, as the viewers, to have more freedom in evaluating the masterfully crafted and engineered on-screen story and, for that reason, it ultimately deserves to be hailed as one of the masterful film adaptation in recent years.
In the film, Elio Perlman is portrayed by Timothee Chalamet whose masterful sensibility and subtlety in conveying his character’s sensual curiosity convince us that he is Elio. As a person who has read the novel, I’m so enthralled to witnessing how Chalamet embodies Elio so effortlessly with his juvenile demeanour in contrast to the mind of a connoisseur of his.
Here’s the thing. For me, Elio is more as an idea than he is as a person, a bright young lad who is old enough to comprehend complicated things, yet still, way too inexperienced to go through it. He still loves goofing around, but at the same time, he has an intimidating intelligence that makes him prefer the quiet sense of solitude. Imagine a barely 17 years old boy who is a trilingual (he speaks English, Italian and French without being worried of a slip of the tongue), a music prodigy and a very skilfull pianist with the ability to transcribe musics by Arnold Schoenberg, to improvise a Liszt-and-Busoni-like arrangement of Bach, and to make him more perfect, he happens to be a literature-smitten as well (he even brings Martin Heiddeger’s quotes in to a conversation!).
It’s Timothee Chalamet’s eyes that livening up the idea of Elio on screen.
His eyes speak more words than his mouth does in a single frame. While the skinny-long-waisted Chalamet’s Elio produces the spot on gestures as a sex-starved teenager who feels uncomfortable with his body and sexuality, his eyes deliver latent emotional spectrums, only a talented and gifted actor can do. Like when his eyes scan his soon-to-be lover, Oliver, with an intense curiosity; or when his eyes show the burst of sexual tension in a single glance.
Chalamet’s Elio’s journey to adulthood begins in summer 1983.
Elio and his parents have an annual summer tradition of visiting their airy-rustic villa in northern Italy. Elio’s mother, Annela Perlman (played by Amira Casar), is a kind and tender polylingualist housewife (she speaks English, Italian, French, and reads and translates German edition of Marguerite of Navarre’s The Heptameron); while his father, Dr Lyle Perlman (played brilliantly in a calmness and wiseness of an intellectual and a little bit of a teenage-like enthusiasm by Michael Stuhlbarg), is a professor who specializes in Greco-Roman culture.
Every summer, Dr Lyle Perlman has scholars to visit for six weeks and assist him in his work at his villa and for the summer of 1983, the scholar is, no other than, Oliver.
Oliver is played by Armie Hammer, an actor whose incredibly beautiful physical appearance is best described as an epitome of American hunk. Armie’s Oliver is tall, lean, blonde, smart, eloquent, articulate and athletic with a radiant and infectious confidence that will easily charm everyone, except Elio. Well, at first.
The very first time Oliver arrives at their villa, Elio secretly objects to the idea of sharing adjoined bedrooms, separated only by a bathroom, with the stranger. When Elio first learns about Oliver’s presence, he murmurs, “l’usurpateur” or ‘the usurper’ to his girlfriend, the pretty French-spoken girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel)—“La fille de Paris!”A colleague of Elio’s father recognizes her–.Although he feels irritated by the way Oliver says, “later” every time he’s about to leave to somewhere, Elio secretly observes the American stranger with curiosity as if he’s a Hellenistic sculpture.
It takes a nice conversation about the etymology of the word ‘apricot’ between Oliver and his father to win Elio’s heart. And then, they start to get along. They have long conversations, talk about philosophy and book and girls, exploring the little town together with bicycles, and even flirt with music with variations of Busoni and Bach. Oliver gets impressed by Elio’s prenatural intelligence (“Is there anything you don’t know?”, Oliver playfully asks Elio), but Elio thinks that Oliver is everything that he’s not.
MARCEL PROUST’S SENSIBILITY
Sure, the kinship builds. Slowly. But never dull.
And that’s what Guadagnino seemingly intended to. In a Proustian’s sensibility (the novel author is a proud Marcel Proust admirer), he patiently establishes a level of carefully orchestrated intimacy in the relationships between Elio and Oliver, to a certain extent, makes their existence more enticing until their deep-seated desire cracks like the cracked egg-shell. By giving Elio and Oliver the space they need, Guadagnino’s directing style lets them to breathe, to grow, and to become more aware of themselves at their own tempo, leaving us as the audiences to be a part of their story naturally and hardly feels constructed at all.
But it is Oliver who actually sets the tempo. Ivory’s screenplay gives enough hints of ambiguity and mystery to Hammer’s Oliver that, at some points, challenging our curiosity and then questioning his being. Oliver is portrayed as a mature man who knows exactly about himself (‘ I know myself…”, he says to Elio as the latter puts his hand on Oliver’s crouch through the pant on their first intimate physical encounter, or when Elio’s mother offers him to have more egg for breakfast). Although Elio is the one who initiates to make a bold move, at least overtly, Oliver seems to be the one who triggers Elio to do so. Like the scene in which Oliver gives the light massage and rub on Elio’s back. Or another hint the film seduces us in a scene which Elio reads a handwritten page inside Heraclitus’s Cosmic Fragments book—Oliver seems to leave that book intentionally so Elio can find and read it– that’s quoting Heraclitus’s epigram on the river of flux,” The meaning of the river flowing is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but that some things stay the same only by changing”
Oliver, through that note, seems to challenge and oppose to the old reading on Heraclitus’s Doctrine of Flux that interpreted it as “ we can’t step into the same river twice”. Did Oliver has the same sex romance before? Does he fully aware of Elio’s interest in him based on his previous experience and then decide to play a “catch me if you can”game?
We never know since Elio and Oliver are never seen exchanging words about their past romance. One can only assume that the 1983 setting plays an important part in establishing the reason why they’re (especially Oliver) being hesitant and holding back since the arrival of AIDS in 1980’s had helped to reinforce the taboo against male homosexuality.
But on the other hands, the seduction and ambiguity that Call Me by Your Name offer to us succeeds in setting up a more distinctive quality of innocence bravura of a harmless brief youthful-passionate and unfiltered taboo romance experience than Guadagnino’s previous films, I Am Love (2010) and A Bigger Splash (2015).
It helps, too, that this film features the erudite-aesthetes-bourgeois protagonists (the characters of this film recite and talk about Martin Heiddeger’s and Michel de Montaigne’s quotes, German edition of Marguerite of Navarre’s The Heptameron, to Heraclitus’s The Cosmic Fragments, to a passionate argument about Luis Bunuel’s works at lunch) with an extensive understanding of Greco-Roman culture that allows it to strip all the baggage commonly found in queer romance stories, such as social and religious norms restriction, as we see in the likes of Carol, Moonlight, or Brokeback Mountain.
Yes, the Perlmans are Jewish. And they celebrate Hanukkah. But they’re the open-minded secular Jewish who accept things and point-of-views not limited to their belief. Several times Call Me by Your Name points those things out in a subtle—or not very subtle– manner. Like in a dialogue between Elio and Oliver in a cafe, in which Elio says, “Oh, we are Jewish. But, we’re also American, Italian, France, somewhat eight typical combinations...” as he replies to Oliver question of why the Perlmans celebrate Christmas. And Elio also tells Oliver that his mother once said that they’re, “Jewish at discretion”. Or in Dr Lyle Perlman’s remarkably touching monologue as he talks to Elio after Oliver ends his summer internship and leaves them. In a brief, but unforgettable shot, the film faithfully recreates a moment in the book version, as the camera takes a shot of Oliver’s Star of David pendant from Elio’s POV. It then cuts to Elio’s facial and eyes expression that subtly shows his mixed reaction of an excitement to know that Oliver is Jewish—seeing it as a bond between them—and his doubt that Oliver’s religiosity will reciprocate his desire. Heck! The Perlman seniors even welcome a gay couple characters (one of them is played by the author of the novel, André Aciman himself).
The Perlman’s paradigm then allows us to see Call Me by Your Name as idealized fairy-tale of a gay-romance story. Even though a non-gay-but-sexually-tolerant parent or adult has been featured in a primary gay theme film before this, their existence is usually inserted in a film with comedy tone. For example, Arisan (Indonesia).
As demonstrated in I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino loves to have his films being presented with a high precision and detailed of sensual attention and curiosity towards his characters (his Desire trilogy have a poolside and “standing fellatio” scene); the textures and smells and intimate interaction of Italian life, even though they’re built out of his cinematic world that encircling his human characters, as if they’re incognito characters which not only serve a function as the backdrop for his story but also as a foothold for his human character’s development. Setting his story in a relatively remote Northern Italy, Guadagnino presents Call Me by Your Name in a sort of insulated utopia which his protagonists can develop an intuitive awareness of conflicting feelings and emotions to each other and, at the same time, explore their desires without fear of reproach and repercussion.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HELLENISTIC AGE
What makes Call Me by Your Name such an extraordinary achievement in storytelling is that Guadagnino brings his love for highly-detailed and precise directing style to another level, by incorporating his characters’ background into a recurring motif as the reason why a specific action is taken, not only as a backdrop or a gimmick. Guadagnino even uses his character’s background as the motif of the film treatment and camera work.
Call Me by Your Name opens with a collection of Hellenistic male sculptures photographs accompanied by credits and John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction -1st Movement. His choice of using Hellenistic male sculptures photographs for the opening sequence–the objects of Elio’s father research– is as the manifestation of his intention of unfolding desire, sensuality and emotion of his protagonists.
The Hellenistic era also introduced an androgynous aesthetic, especially in the sculptures. Greco-Roman culture is known for not seeing the concept of bisexuality as taboo and Hellenistic era continued how they saw bisexuality at that time, and it affected to how heterosexual relationships and the ideal male physical appearance was represented on their work of art. As a result, male Hellenistic sculptures became less bulky and muscular. They were also more slender, elegant and feminized. That’s why, at that time, the popularity of deities such as Apollo, Dionysus and Hermaphroditus gained more popularity and they were depicted as androgynous in sculptures. They still retained male anatomy, but they were slimmer and smoother, compared to sculptures from Classic era. Apollo was the god who often being depicted as an androgynous in sculptures because he was the god of music and poetry which were both considered as feminine arts.
The androgynous nature of male Hellenistic sculptures then draws ambiguity in seeing their sexuality. Or in the modern age, we’re familiar with the concept of “metrosexual”. This point is actually pointed out in a scene which involves a dialogue between Dr Lyle Perlman and Oliver when both of them are seen studying and observing a collection of Hellenistic male sculptures that Dr Perlman had discovered before through a projector. As they’re admiring the ageless beauty and ambiguity of what they’re observing, Dr Perlman says to the staggered Oliver that the sculptures challenge their inertia, “As if they’re daring you to desire them”. Oliver seems to be stunned by Dr Perlman’s words which are said hours before his first-time physical coupling with Elio.
Both main characters in Call Me by Your Name, Oliver and Elio, are not bulky and muscular in a way modern people of today see as the idealized form of a male physical look. Both of them are slim and slender. They’re androgynous. In fact, the concept of androgynous ambiguity was commonly adapted to popular culture in 1980’s, the era of the story was set. Well-known figures in popular art, such as Boy George and Billy Idol who wore a very visible makeup and pastel coloured clothes and kinky leather. Women wore broad shoulders clothes and tuxedos. In the 1980’s, they had a flirtation with the concept of sexuality and that’s one of the reasons why that era will always be fascinating.
Although Call Me by Your Name takes the viewers as the spectators in a relatively objective way, the camera frequently shots from Elio’s perspective in observing Oliver.
Oliver is more androgynous than Elio is and he carries the personality of, what we now call, “metrosexual”. He’s neat and more well dressed, compared to Elio who’s more “messy”, puppyish, wiry rather than chiselled. At one scene, Elio is surprised to find out that Oliver’s room—it’s used to be Elio’s room—now more neat and clean (“What have you done to this room,”Elio wonders”). For Elio, Oliver is like a Hellenistic sculpture who attracts his oppressed desire. The camera often takes shots of Oliver from lower angles, as if it underlines his self-esteem and his status as an alpha male.
It makes sense, then, that Guadagnino set Hellenistic sculptures as the opening of his film that also serves a function as an epigraph that summarizes the whole story of Call Me by Your Name. Up until this point, we’ve already learnt that the film is about a minor boy who’s in the quest for his true identity. Guadagnino uses his character’s sexuality as a way to reach the manhood and to unveil his self-faithfulness.
Guadagnino’s aim to recreate Hellenistic sculpture’s ambiguity, realistic, natural and subtle characteristic also has a significant impact on how he treats the film and the way camera shots its objects. Guadagnino’s d.o.p, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Beonmee, will work again with Guadagnino in Suspiria remake) filmed Call Me by Your Name in luminous celluloid (35 mm) that allows him being perceptive to the colour and sound of nature, as much as being perceptive to art objects. Mukdeeprom’s camera presents the nature of summer precisely by capturing and combining the colours of cerulean blue, cherry red, fresh apricots and limoncello yellow from the surrounding objects. So often, his camera works in a very Prost’s way by paying a hyperrealistic attention to tiny details like facial expressions, body gestures, the oozing-soft-boiled-egg, or touches. His shots position us to behave like an obsessive infatuated teenager.
Along with Guadagnino’s longtime editor, Walter Dasano, Mukdeeprom emphasizes subtlety emotional meanings in tune with the director’s obsession with the natural feeling of languorous mood. They create short scenes and abruptly cut them to another scene, but in each scene, the camera often works in a very Prost’s way by paying a hyperrealistic attention to tiny details, like facial expression, body gestures, the oozing-soft-boiled-egg, touches, or a specific line in the manner of an obsessive infatuated teenager. The combination of Mukdeeprom’s camera work and Dasano’s editing choice succeeds in creating the Hellenistic ambiguity that Guadagnino intended to.
Call Me by Your Name’s Hellenistic natural style is not only defined by its directing style. We cannot neglect the contribution of its sound editing that amplifies sounds and noises produced by nature, like wind, banging doors, water, or footsteps. As a result, there’s a specific quality of quietness about it. The sound editing is also smart in utilizing supposedly-non-diegetic sounds—soundtracks, for example– as if they’re being integrated with the narrative world. But, the sound editor seems to over-amplify Elio’ and Oliver’ speaking voices to underline their relationship.
THE COSMIC FRAGMENTS
There’s brief, but significantly pointed appearance of Heraclitus’s philosophical texts, The Cosmic Fragments, in Call Me by Your Name, and it doesn’t come up in vain.
Call Me by Your Name consists of chronological short-epigram-alike scenes , similar to The Cosmic Fragments which consists of hundreds of epigrams and short sayings, and each epigram in those material contains a paradoxical event that goes into an understanding that: all events happen is more about the world (logos) than just about the men (characters).
Heraclitus—whose teachings of the soul and logos represented a kind of paradigm for the Hellenic view of mortality—believes that there are a logos inside a human being and that our personal logos that provides us knowledge, and knowledge means experience and experience lead to wisdom. But, ones cannot assure that once the wisdom has been acquired, he or she will not go through the same process. It’s because of the existence of the greater, single-omnipresent-divine-logos that order, guide, and unify the process in a cycle.
In this film, personal logos is interpreted by desire, and that desire creates unreasonable urgency to do something. The concept of unreasonable urgency is strange for an erudite, like Oliver, who at first holding his desire back. But, in fact, the desire is behind why, “we can step into a river twice,” because desire will change either us or the river.
The knowledge that the main protagonists posses in this film, give them information that a kind of relationship that Oliver and Elio have will not last forever. Oliver knows it. Elio knows it. Elio’s parents know it. The Hellenistic sculptures and pieces of literature tell them so. They do observe, but their inner logos is the one who took the decision.
Do they regret? Eliot’s father’s monologue clearly shows that there’s no need to regret it.
Does the experience make them learn something and change? Oliver and Elio take a different path, and here’s the part where the decision to alter the ending helps the movie to become more powerful than the novel because the film refuses to teach us and it lets us to have our own interpretation instead.
The novel has Oliver and Elio meet again twenty years later in middle age, and reuniting. Meanwhile, the Guadagnino’s film finishes six months later in snowy winter after the events of the summer. The film implies that Elio has changed. He becomes more metropolitan in style.
Oliver also has changed. At least, that’s what we learn from his phone call to Elio that he’s going to get married. And it leads to one of the most dramatic ending in films I’ve watched so far as the entire movie is building up to this one poignant scene, as we see Elio cries before the camera and his eyes convey a wide-range of emotions that enable us to feel longing, anger, heartbroken, and being stranded, but strangely, we can still feel love and hope.
Are they going to have what Heraclitus’s Doctrine of Flux stated about, “step into the same river twice?” We never know as the on-screen story ends, we’re no longer being a part of their journey.
We only know that in an era when the significance and the privileged status of the work of art are being both questioned and reinforced, Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name becomes the ultimate monumental of the artistic achievement that turns literature about the infatuation, agony and also ecstasy of the first love, into the pure power of cinema.
So, how do you define first love? Is it “fall in love’? or Is it”fall in lust?”
Running time: 132 minutes
Production: A Sony Picture release of an RT Features, Frenesy Film Co., La Cinéfacture production.
(International sales: Memento Films, Paris.)
Producers: Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, Rodrigo Teixeira, Marco Morabito. Executive producers: James Ivory, Howard Rosenman, Tom Dolby, Naima Abed, Nicholas Kaiser, Lourenço Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Derek Simonds, Margarethe Baillou.
Director: Luca Guadagnino.
Screenplay, James Ivory, Guadagnino, Walter Fasano.
Camera (colour, widescreen 35 mm): Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.
Editor: Walter Fasano.
Music: Sufjan Stevens.
Casts: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso.