Befitting a film so infatuated with the experiential possibilities of considering textures and aesthetics anew with every shot, Luca Guadagnino’s surprise Oscar contender Call Me By Your Name resonates deeply with another classic about Westerners aimlessly adrift in Italy: Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. In that film, the two principals, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, cast themselves errantly through the emotional and moral quagmire of personal disconnection as they wander through a mid-century Italy they feel totally dispossessed of.
At the same time, however, Rossellini resurrects specters of the past, and of art, to eulogize, critique, lament, and play non-verbal Greek Chorus to the central relationship. Each shot of a long-dormant statue or newly-uncovered ruin of Pompeii refracts the central relationship among two living people by uncovering untold reservoirs of cosmic implication. The film suggests not only that this story reverberates through the ages but that the film’s focus on the two characters is both revealing and limiting. In other words, that any film about only two upper-class European people is both reflective of and unobservant to other whispers and murmurs of untold desire, craft, passion, and observation that have passed through channels of history for centuries but can’t be demarcated by upper-class or European issues. That deeply humanist film suggests we must both become open to these channels – moving beyond our own problems – and, contrapuntally, humbled by them, necessarily aware that we approach the outside world with much hubris and without a full grasp of its weight and import.
I mention this because director Luca Guadagnino similarly casts the turmoil of his two central figures, 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) and his father’s academic assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer), into relief through uncovered statues of the past. But Rossellini observed statues as a reflection of cosmic quagmire, in the hopes of opening up Sanders and Bergman to the throes of their own discontent as well as to renewed and revitalized awareness of their own position in a wider and seemingly unknowable world begging to be seen and re-seen. Guadagnino raises Greek statues out of their watery grave simply because he loves the way they look.
Although it may sound as much, I do not mean this as a slight so much as a simple facet, a reflection of this new film’s animating principle. Voyage to Italy eloquently pockmarks its protagonists’ emotional stratification, threatening to dismantle the strictures of classical narrative by introducing external concerns his characters don’t consider, and which we don’t want to look at, like death, decay, and destruction. Guadagnino already loves looking, and his films are referendums on and sonnets to this fact. While Rossellini is concerned with ethical questions about looking, Guadagnino is drawn to the sheer eloquence of looking, simply forcing us to look rather than reflecting on the mental prison of not looking beyond your inner-circle or the spiritual value of alternative perspective. While Rossellini uses external glances as a way for his audience to look inward, to refract the confines of their own minds, Guadagnino is as likely to treat internal desires as conduits to his aesthetic fetish, to looking externally.
Rather than a moral mapping of these two principles, I treat the majesty of both to be reflective of various dialectics between the internal and external realms. Put more simply, it’s totally fine that Guadagnino simply likes to look, for various reasons. Firstly, and most primordially, because he can look, because cinema does look. Secondly, because he sure has an eye on him. When he aesthetically connects Armie Hammer’s preternaturally-upkept body with a godly, heroic Greek statue, the felt force, the aesthetic charge, of his rhyming partially redeems or legitimizes itself. Guadagnino, abetted by a new partner in crime in cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, is transparently fixated on the various possibilities of human flesh, not only the numerous contexts in which flesh can be placed but the varied arias of sensation it can produce when captured in its fleeting moments of interaction with other textures, from water to peach to stone to, of course, other flesh. For Guadagnino, each momentary collision of surfaces is a flicker of possibility, a potential frisson of ecstasy that take many temperaments: sanguine, tranquil, melancholic.
Thirdly, for this director, the legitimacy of surface experiences – a lightning rod for films as varied as Cassavetes’s Faces and Corman’s X: The Man With the X Ray Eyes – is a paradox: the presence of aesthetic surfaces are a historical and cosmic certainty always circularly recurring but also necessarily ephemeral, with sensations granted eternal majesty because of their fleeting-ness. Thus, the pull of the external draws Guadagnino with an almost religious fervor, but he does not treat it centripetally, as a singular dogma with one central sensation to be re-read in service of shoring up a favored meaning. He confronts surfaces exuberantly and gravely but with a wily uncertainty, registering a prismatic multiplicity of sensations and perceptions that agitate with the sheer frictive force of their multivalent physicality. Any sensation can hold many meanings, and it can take on many forms depending on a complex and elusive interplay of light, sound, color, and form.
Fourthly, and most importantly, although Call Me By Your Name is something of a closed-off aesthetic experience, Guadagnino does not envision surfaces as regal, holier-than-thou pedestals supplanted from the daily rituals and performances of lived experience. In Call Me By Your Name, sensuality is not simply a visionary construction, a construction of vision, but a portrait of mind and body in harmony, each enlivened by new interaction with the other. In other words, while he isn’t drawn to the necessity of new mental sight like Rossellini, he does explore how vision – sight – is connected to vision of the mind, how physical and mental experience are intertwined. Throughout the film, the camera suggests filigrees beneath the surface, animating desires and possibilities which are reflected in but not completed by surfaces; Call Me By Your Name derives an erotic thrill off of experimenting with what surfaces reveal and obfuscate in the mind, often at the same time. Certainly, the whole film builds up to and then is antecedent to this very pulse: the title itself refers to a scene where Elio and Oliver, infatuated with each other’s bodies, make love while half-jokingly asking the other to literally call them by their own name, Elio being called Oliver and vice-versa, a none-too-subtle meditation on the way in which exploring the surfaces of another’s body becomes a portal into greater depths of one’s own self. For Elio, exploring Oliver’s body becomes a way to explore Elio, and vice-versa.
But this thrilling interplay of surface and sub-surface is never limited to flesh in Call Me By Your Name, nor is flesh only capable of effusing erotic charges. In the astonishing final scene, Elio’s face is wracked with momentary emotions, his countenance a canvas to the unknowable depths of his simultaneous elation and misery and dozens of other dancing emotions operating in tension and harmony at once. Likewise, the film is alive to not only water’s symbolic properties but its sensorial instability, its motility and mutability and sense of constant self-refreshment: water, insofar as it earns its symbolic valences from death to life to renewal to purging, is physically itinerant and always reshaping itself as well, always in an unfinished state like life.
Even music, always part of the sensorium here, evokes multiple layers through its fascinating diffusion, its existence as both presence (we hear it) and absence (it has no visible or corporeal matter). While Oliver, for his part, is a devoted student of classical antiquity and the pleasures of art-objects which, according to one character, practically dare you to desire them, Elio spends his days feverishly devouring, transposing, and altering and thus retextualizing classical music from his favorite composers. While the film obviously cottons Elio’s sensual appreciation of music to his adoration for Oliver’s body and his attendant mystique, Guadagnino also problematizes a purely sensual approach: Elio’s playing becomes a dispassionate aesthetic showpiece, a performance for his parents to cart out for their admirers. In this sense, Guadagnino explores both the positive and negative imaginative resonances of the senses and their application in society.
In the most telling scene, cinematographer Mukdeeprom mediates Elio’s reflective visage with iridescent, seemingly-dancing colorful filters, generating new lenses that also intrude and render the seemingly transparent more opaque, more un-seeable, treating sensation as an active process that must be constantly renewed, re-seen, re-interpreted, rather than a known quantity or fixed assumption. For that matter, Mukdeeprom’s lensing is phenomenal throughout, recreating the washed-out haze as well as the tactile presence of early-‘80s cinema with 35mm film stock to evoke lazy summer days of the soul as both hyper-real presence and slightly-diffuse, minutely-displaced fog, a perfect dialogue between external presences that are themselves insinuative of absences and things hidden beneath the surface. It is not for nothing that a truly phenomenal, wonderfully elliptical but soul-bearing monologue from Elio’s father and Oliver’s employer Mr. Perlman (a sublime Michael Stuhlbarg), connects the mind and body explicitly. In this sense, while most films imply that surfaces are chimerical and must be exposed as irrelevant in light of hidden truths that lie beneath, Call Me By Your Name uses surfaces as the conduits to look beneath themselves, to wake from the slumber of the presumption that surfaces and interiors are intrinsically antithetical.
Viewers of Call Me By Your Name are likely to quibble with certain omissions, namely that Call Me By Your Name is self-evidently a psychic poem to longing, desire, and the tensions between merely observing and truly reading surfaces rather than, say, a social tract about how a gay relationship, let alone one between a 17 and 24 year old, will be considered in wider society. I’m tempted to defend the film as a question of interiorized gazes rather than social theorizing, although the characters in reality would also likely worry about the social consequences of their affair more-so than Elio and Oliver, so even as a portrait into interiority, it seems incomplete. This elision may reek of quasi-hermetic privilege to some.
But the catalyst for the film is an un-patronizing mood of quasi-hermetic escape, a vibe steeped not in programmatic social theory – in the relationship between two gay people and wider society, the subject of many valid films – but in a climate of elegiac and erotic self-reflection, a sense of feeling what it is like to be yourself in the moment of being yourself. The film’s central focus is hardly myopic though; the many resonances the film wrings from its essentially observational disposition reveal an ever-expanding mind. The film’s focus on small-scale, intimate, even dream-like and oneiric experience at the expense of a more dispassionate or objective reflection of various social energies beleaguering the confines of this relationship is a choice with consequences, but the film plunges into its choice with pure filmmaking elan and imaginative texture. Which is to say: while there may be criticisms, an empathetic or generous viewer will find it far more difficulty to withhold adoration for a film that bathes itself in such a contemplative milieu, a meditative aura of imperiled sublimity. Or a film that douses itself in such rich, boldly-ringing visual, sonic, and emotional textures all while uncovering so many potential hidden undercurrents. Its focus may be hewn more personally, but the amplitude of its intimacy is extraordinary, and certainly unparalleled in 2017.
That previous paragraph also draws another wondrous facet of Call Me By Your Name further into relief: it is a love story between, or an impressionistic collage of moments featuring, Oscar and Elio, the nominal subjects of the film, and a subject about which I have written very little, but also, I hope, a little more than very little. The paradox that I have written quite a bit about love without focusing on Elio and Oliver is the direct result of the film’s understanding of love, which deepens beyond person-to-person and certainly expands beyond its central homosexual relationship. Instead of a story of romance, the film amounts a thesis on passion, and contemplation and questioning of said passion, and this passion takes on many forms. Coupled with its kindred spirit in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name is an inimitable exploration of the extraordinary intimacy of art: a love of haptic sensations that reveal chthonic desires and which produce fascinating passion for creative production, be it clothing in Anderson’s film or music and architecture in Call Me. Each such art, including love in both films, is a frequently ecstatic, sometimes perverse, and always bewildering commingling of sensations and perceptions, a sublimely-textured compendium and tapestry of pure-but-not-pure sensation about which I’m sure much will and has been written. But as important as either film’s thematic exploration of their chosen content or subject, their narratively-center art forms or their exploration of love as an art and art and love as refractions of desire, is their sensorial adoration for their own formal existence. In other words, the key to both films is their appreciation for and questioning of the many possibilities and potentialities of cinema itself.
(A brief aside: I’m aware of significant criticism the film has faced concerning the age gap between the two main characters, and while the film is careful to position itself as innocent legally, that doesn’t intrinsically wipe away the social consequences of such a depiction. I understand that and respect the criticisms, but it is neither how I tend to see cinema – more focused on the internal logic of a film rather than external moral concerns, even if relevant ones – nor the subject I am best equipped to answer. It certainly wasn’t an issue for me, although I understand why it might be for others).