A near-masterpiece of abandon. Luca Guadagnino, possibly the most exciting Italian director in decades, conjures a period when European movies had yet to become uglified, realist “testaments” to cultural and moral decadence: Call Me By Your Name is as luminous as Renoir’s A Day in the Country; it reconciles Jan Troell’s love of nature with the hedonism of Bertolucci—bodies moving in the ruins. These are not the ruins of L’Avventura, where the half-dead met on a desert island to proclaim the Death of Europe. In Call Me By Your Name the ruins are alive, rife with promise. An ancient statue emerges from the water as if supernaturally summoned to the surface, its beauty catching us off guard. Far from an archaeology lesson, the scene offers the authentic pleasure of discovery and a feeling of rebirth. Guadagnino isn’t interested in crystallizing history; he doesn’t care for sharp contrasts or oppositions (Antiquity vs. Modernity, etc). History for him means living, breathing experience.
The movie takes place in Northern Italy during one fateful 1980s summer. It’s a love letter to the bond—lyrical, sexual, intellectual—between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and an older foreigner, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Chalamet’s performance as the restless, hyper-cultured Elio is one for the ages: half-aristocratic, half-bohemian, deceptively angelic and full of dazzling natural arrogance. (Oliver’s “coarseness” is a sort of aphrodisiac for him.) Elio’s father is an admirer of Praxiteles and his sculpting of the human form, of the human bodies “daring us to desire them.” Guadagnino’s Italian summer has bodies of its own, and they move nimbly in the landscape—a type of premoral Eden. This is the rare film where there is almost no tension, no “drama” of the standard kind, but a steady flow of discovery and, finally, transcendence.
For the movie to invoke the great pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus is no small gesture. (Plato is omitted, left to his cave, same as the later Greek and Christian moralists.) Heraclitus’ doctrine of eternal change knows no martyrdom, no morality, no mawkish lamentation: and in one exultant close-up, as Elio looks into the Heraclitean flames, loss and bliss are unified, indistinguishable from each other. It’s a movie rich in feeling and free of tragedy: a love story that elevates the individual and his understanding of the world, one that gives pain and joy their equal due.
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the Thai cinematographer (of Uncle Boonmee fame), is essential when it comes to capturing this free-flowing communion between man, man’s feelings and nature. The days and nights impress themselves on us. At one point there is a blackout, and the camera lingers in the shadows, finding a strange sort of familial warmth in it: Mukdeeprom welcomes the dark into his canvas. There is a smell of Greek leisure in the air. (So often is leisure used as a subject of decay in modern movies that it’s shocking to see it treated as a much-needed ground for human growth.)
As a coming-of-age movie, it rivals Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también, though Call Me By Your Name is aloof in its timelessness. Guadagnino sees no distinction between emotions and intellect: his ideas are sensual, free of posturing. Elio’s mind-body disconnect is only a temporary source of anguish before Oliver, an Italian girlfriend and a peach come to the rescue. The magic is such that there seem to be no contradictions between the old Hellenic values and 80s pop music. In his devotion to an ever-vital present Guadagnino discovers what may be the most fertile form of remembrance. This movie is purged of all decadence. The ruins are part of the dance.