Call Me By Your Name is, for me, THE most impactful and beautiful piece of naturalistic film-making I have seen in recent years, if not ever. Ever since I have seen it in late 2017, this film has stuck with me. I have seen it 6times at this point, and each viewing has enhanced my appreciation of the film. It has instantly become one of my all-time favorites. But what causes the impact that this film has? Well frankly, it is everything. This film is the perfect combination of artistic craft and personal emotion, of pathos and logos. The movie is such a masterpiece because it is the convergence of perfect technical construction, performance, theme, writing, and presentation. I may seem hyperbolic, but I am only being honest here. Let me break down (Rather long-windedly) a few of the things that I feel make the movie so brilliant.
NATURALISM AND VISUAL STORYTELLING DETAIL
It seems that in the age of the internet, it seems that in terms of cinematography the only thing that gets praised is flashy camera techniques. Sure, there are plenty of cool scenes captured in one long take, with plenty of camera movement that makes the audience go “ooohhh, that looks cool!” But how many of those shots, how much of that camera movement, actually improve the film? Does it help tell the story? Does it communicate information about the feelings and thoughts of the characters? Often, no. But that is not the case here. Instead of focusing on style, director Luca Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom create substance and embed meaning into even the simplest of scenes through simplicity. The majority of the film is composed of rather basic medium to long shots, with minimal close-ups. These shots are lengthy, but usually very simple. Often it will be as simple as a static shot that shifts slightly into another static shot. Often the shots are so minimalistic that you won’t even realize that they have gone on for minutes at a time. Meanwhile, each camera movement within this lengthy shot, every character movement within the frame, the space between characters, all of these things are used to subtly communicate information to you or to add layers and depth to the information already being communicated by the characters. The naturalism here adds to the experience because it does not break your immersion in the intimacy of these moments, it feels private and believable, like you are a fly on the wall experiencing these stories. For example:
There is a moment about halfway through the movie where the main character Elio finally confesses his feelings for Oliver. He does this while they are standing and talking in a town square next to a monument. Their conversation plays out in one deliberately long take (video linked above), and the camera tells us all we need to know about the character's feelings. The camera is pretty stationary as they begin their conversation, parking their bikes and making small talk. At some point, Oliver begins to walk away from Elio around to the other side of the monument and the camera begins to pan with him as he walks away, leaving part of the monument they are standing next to separating them. Then Elio hints at his feelings for Oliver with the line “if you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” Oliver stops in his tracks, as does the camera, with this barrier serving as a geographical visualization of the emotional barrier between the two of them at the moment. Then they both begin to walk, crossing opposite sides of the monument and the camera pans with them again. At the scariest point in the conversation for Elio, where Oliver pauses before responding which leaves Elio repeating to himself “because I wanted you to know…” as if he wants to make both himself and Oliver believe it, Oliver is completely eclipsed by the statue, visualizing Elio’s fear that he might have lost Oliver forever by telling him these things. But then Oliver emerges and they meet on the other side of the monument and the camera holds, lingering on them drawing close to each other on the other side of the moment as they are also drawn together emotionally.
Could discussing it in this level of detail be considered over-analysis? Perhaps. Of course, I would never dream to proclaim that these are the objective concrete meanings of these particular cinematic choices, but this is simply a description of the information that was embedded within this scene by the choices in cinematography, shot composition, and use of space. This is purely visual storytelling, communicating the emotional distance between these two characters as well as their fears and anxieties without a word of dialogue and while feeling completely naturalistic. And yet, he does this while still keeping every shot looking lush, gorgeous and layered. For example, look at the aesthetic beauty of a shot like this:
This level of detail is present throughout the film, as Guadagnino expertly weaves subtle emotions and detail into every single shot to indicate characters' thoughts, all while trusting his audience and avoiding flashy techniques that would reduce the subtlety. For example, at one point Elio comments on the fact that Oliver wears a necklace with the star of David, and that he owns one like it but does not wear it. Oliver then inquires why Elio does not wear it. Elio casually remarks “my mother says we are Jews of discretion.” Oliver then replies “well, I guess that works for your mother.” At that point, the scene ends. A few minutes later, Elio is seen wearing his own Star of David. The film doesn’t wink at the audience and draw attention to it, but Elio wears it until the end of the film, showing his willingness to be more open and accepting of his identity both as a Jew and as someone who is bisexual.
And of course, I would be remiss to discuss the cinematography and detail of this film without discussing its final shot. To do this requires spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film then I advise you to skip down to the next section. At the end of the film, Oliver has gone back to America after the summer and we flash forward to Christmas. Elio answers a phone call and it is Oliver, announcing his engagement with a girl who Oliver had been on a break from seeing during that summer. While of course happy for Oliver, Elio is left heartbroken that the one person he has had a true connection with has moved on, that this means they will never get to be together. He goes and sits by the fire, and the final shot of the film is a close-up of Elio’s face as he sits there, processing his grief. The shot holds relentlessly as the credits roll and we see tears stream down his face. The shot holds in close on just Elio, causing the viewer to feel the same heightened emotion and loneliness as the character does in this moment. The shot holds for so long, refusing to pull away and forcing the audience to process their emotions about what they just witnessed in the same way that Elio does in that moment. For this, the final shot is one of the most effective I have ever seen and deserves all the praise it has received.
Look, this section is going to be pretty short just because every single performance in this movie is incredible and deserving of praise. If I was to go into too much detail, I would be writing a book here. But I do want to talk about the two leads for a second. God, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer have some of the most believable chemistry I have ever seen, and each delivers a career-best performance. Timothee in particular. Every moment of his depiction of Elio is animated, as he uses both the most minute facial expression and the movement of his body (the way he walks, dances, shifts his weight, glances around, even brushes his hand against Oliver) to add layers to his performance and further express the characters emotions when Elio finds himself unable to express them verbally. He was robbed from winning Best Actor at the Oscars and sells every single moment of teenage infatuation, embarrassment, joy, and heartbreak. Armie Hammer is likewise brilliant, as he compliments Chalamet’s youthful expressive energy with a more reserved, contemplative performance that nonetheless conveys the same emotions. He too owns the physicality of his role, as he dances about to express joy, massages Elio in times of pain, or curls up with him in a moment of intimacy. Every member of the supporting cast kills it as well, in particular I want to shout out Michael Stuhlbarg for his role as Elio’s father, as he gets to shine in a monologue scene towards the end of the film.
THEME AND EMOTION
Call Me By Your Name also provides one of the most beautiful thematic messages in recent history. It is an unflinching look at first love, both the joy and heartbreak of it. At the same time, it is more than that. It is also an unapologetic celebration of enthusiastic consensual love. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a movie where the main characters took the time to ask for consent before sex? But in CMBYN Oliver asks “can I kiss you?” before reaching over to Elio before they have sex for the first time. It celebrates the idea of safe youthful experimentation in a way that few films do. Normally, in a movie like this you get either a puritanical message that sex = bad (as comically put by Mean Girls, “don’t have sex or you will get pregnant and die”) or a morally murky message common in bro comedies that endorses sex in any and every circumstance, regardless of factors that can inhibit consent. Instead of either of those options, in CMBYN you see a celebration of youthful love, with two consenting parties and parental approval as well. There is no trickery or grey areas here, just two young people in love. Not to mention this film, though depicting a same-sex romance, avoids many tropes of the “gay romance” genre. There are no bigoted or disapproving parents, no hate crimes inflicted on the characters, no societal pressure pushing Elio and Oliver apart. Instead, their only enemy, the only antagonist of this film, is time. They only have so long together and have to choose to make the best of it despite their circumstances.
But even more than that, this movie is about the importance of love. The importance of putting yourself out there, even though you can get your heartbroken. This need to put yourself out there or “live dangerously” is in my opinion necessary to truly live, to unlock the greatest rewards of life that can be found in finding someone you connect with like no other. But I cannot say this any better than the film itself does, so I will just let it do the talking for me. This comes from the second to last scene in the film, as Elio’s father attempts to console Elio over Oliver having to leave:
“Right now you may not want to feel anything. Maybe you never wanted to feel anything and maybe it’s not me you want to be speak about these things but feel something you obviously did. Look you had a beautiful friendship, maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste! Have I spoken out of turn? Then I’ll say one more thing it’ll clear the air. I may have come close but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back, stood in the way. How you live your life is your business just remember our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once and before you know it your hearts worn out and as for your body there comes a point when no one looks at it much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow, pain don’t kill it and with it the joy you felt.”
Now that is a message that I feel everyone needs to hear. It is something universal that everyone has been through, and this theme enhances the emotion of the story so much. Truthfully I have wept at least one point every time I have watched this film, and I am not ashamed to admit it. So much rings true to my own experience, as it does others. Not only does it reflect those experiences, but also makes those experiences easier to process and learn from. Is that not the point of art, to make it easier to understand and process the suffering of life. To put it simply, to make it easier to live?
So, that is it. Those are just a few of the reasons that I find Call Me By Your Name to be my favorite movie of 2017, one of the best of all time even. It is a display of perfect and confident cinematic craft, from its framing, lighting, use of camera movement, use of space within the frame, and editing. Additionally, every performance is subtle, confident, and expressive. Every word of dialogue is authentic and imbued with emotion (both a credit to the author of the original novel Andre Aciman and the adapter of the screenplay James Ivory). Every emotional and thematic moment ring true due to all of these factors, and you are left with one of those rare cinematic experiences that works on every level. It is not flashy or melodramatic, just authentically all too human. And art like that is truly special, and in my mind, it is worthy of celebration.