From its opening credit sequence onward, the Luca Guadagnino film Call Me By Your Name is filled with classical art. And that makes sense, as the movie takes place in Italian home of an American archeology professor whose teenage son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) embarks in a brief, passionate romance with Oliver (Armie Hammer), the grad student who comes to visit. But, save for a couple of mini lectures by Michael Stuhlbarg’s professor, high art serves as little more than set dressing, as movie messily evokes pieces from vastly different eras and regions, all under the rubric of “impressive old stuff.”
Instead, the piece of art the movie actually cares about (outside, of course, of the non-diegetic Sufjan Stevens song that plays over the film’s heartbreaking final moments) is classical only by modern pop-radio standards, not to the film’s 1983 setting – “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs.
The difference in these two forms helps us think about the movie’s core romance. In a wonderful speech toward the end of the movie, Stuhlbarg describes the relationship between Elio and Oliver in terms he reserves for the art he studies: eternal, powerful, and deep. But what we actually see on screen is closer to a pop song – short and electric, uncomplicated but potentially life-changing, especially to a 17-year-old like Elio.
Most of the time, Guadagnino recognizes the importance of his movie’s youthful nature puts Elio in the foreground of the shot or focuses the camera on him, leaving everyone else in a blur to visually communicating an adolescent’s self-absorption. Chalamet impressively handles the attention, capturing the brashness and fragility of an arrogant teen experiencing something he doesn’t quite understand.
In lesser hands, a moment in which Elio plays a musical piece for Oliver, changing it each time and lecturing about how each variation mimics a great composer, would be no more than an attempt at bourgeois seduction. But when Chalamet varies between literal fist pumping bravado and self-conscious downward glances, he communicates his character’s lack of self-awareness, not even sure that he’s attracted to the man across from him, let alone that his tactics will work. Shifting between boyish clumsiness and an artist’s bravado, a man’s confidence and a teen’s worry, Chalamet’s physicality tells the story of transformation just as well as Stuhlbarg’s speech.
Furthermore, this focus on Elio redeems Hammer’s fairly one-note performance by making him less a person and more an object of desire. Wielding his baritone voice and confident stride like an intellectual Don Draper, Hammer serves as Elio’s dream man – the embodiment of everything he wants and wants to be.
But when Oliver gets more attention in its last third, the movie falters, and not just because of Hammer’s limitations as an actor. Audiences understand what Elio sees in Oliver, but it’s not at all clear why the older man wants in the younger. More importantly, Oliver’s agency highlights the age difference between the two men, an issue the movie handles poorly. Oliver repeatedly expresses fear that his advances will somehow damage Elio or get him in trouble. He may refer only to emotional devastation, the same way Elio mistreats a local girl he’s sleeping with; but when Oliver acknowledges that his touch may be tantamount to molestation, viewers cannot help but think he’s right, even more so than the movie is willing to deal with.
Fortunately, such moments are few, and the story remains largely that of a young man whose life is changed by his desire for an older man. And, in that context, Call Me By YourName plays like the best pop songs: it makes you hurt, it makes you smile, it makes you want to dance. And while it may only last a few moments, it will, without a doubt, get stuck in your head again and again.