Photo / Courtesy of TIFF

Navigating the eroticism and fantasy of melodrama

Don’t hold your breath for a nude, lounging Armie Hammer. Call Me by Your Name is steeped with sensuality, but it leaves sex off-screen. All we’re shown are the traces and precursors (see the already infamous peach scene). Directed by Luca Guadagnino, following his equally sensual A Bigger Splash, this film finds comfort in desire. It is a summer of first love, where sunbeams rest on bare skin, sweat stains backs and armpits, and teenagers are always running down to the river. Even the classical statues—fading figures caught in time—are sinuous and sexual.

Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends his summer at an Italian villa inherited by his parents. He reads, transcribes music, and goes out at night. His parents work and host; his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeologist, dredges up lost statues from the sea. All of this we learn after the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), the grad student Elio’s father hired. Context becomes part of the film’s dressings; Oliver, polite and American, is the center of attention, and Call Me by Your Name never lets Elio and Oliver separate. They play the roles of good host and good guest with deepening intensity. Elio shows Oliver around town on their bicycles, only for Oliver to abandon him after coffee; Oliver asks Elio to replay a melody on piano, and Elio teases him with alternations and variations.

This is Elio’s coming of age story. Romantically, Oliver is Elio’s first major passion, when love is quick and blind. Sexually, Oliver is ostensibly Elio’s first homosexual relationship. As if he were an unattainable dream, the film likes to put Oliver in the background of shots, foregrounding Elio’s body. The question of power is asked when the film breaks from this pattern in a jarring series of close-ups on Oliver, highlighting how little we know of him. Because there is a power imbalance—between a man conscious of his sexuality and one coming into it, and between an adult and a teenager. But the film, as is Oliver, is careful and consensual. Elio’s parents seem to exist just off-screen and are more than conscious of the affair.

For these men, love exists less in dialogue and more in physical presence. Elio and Oliver flirt and fall for each other in a look or touch; in the space they share. At the beginning of the film, the shots are made up of movement; characters walk towards the camera, and then away, as it pans or tracks to follow. As if these people can only come so close to what they want to say. One of the film’s many casually choreographed shots involves this movement around a World War I monument. Elio comes close to the camera and Oliver moves away, disappearing behind the monument before the men reappear together. Brought together, they can finally admit their attraction to one another. But the shot goes on, as the men again move towards the camera and then away, biking out of town. Racing through the Italian countryside, the camera stays still and lets them wind over the dusty roads until they are only specks—for a moment I wished they could diminish into nothing and find happiness by escaping the film.

Elio and Oliver, however, exist within the conventions of a melodrama. Their world must be ideal, must find sorrow as much as it finds erotic joy. The setting is idealized, devoid of political and personal conflict. Here, 1983 is a style to be worn, enticingly put together by costume designer Giulia Piersanti. The Italian villa and antiquarian statues have no rough edges, but exist with total sensuality as photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Even the songs by Sufjan Stevens exist in unique sequences. For some, this perfection will be off-putting; either approaching an upper-middle class political privilege, or seeming like something close to curation. But I think it adds to the urgency and the weight of the film. For Elio, this romance is the first and last time that love will seem like the answer to everything.

Call Me by Your Name privileges Elio and Oliver’s love over all else, and in doing so encourages feeling. Feeling which is also offered to the audience for use in and outside the theatre. If the story is an unattainable fantasy, it is also a radical affirmation of emotion. It is joy and sorrow and growth through these experiences; it is a warmth to escape to during these winter months.

Call Me by Your Name is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.