One of British Director David Lean’s earliest and greatest films is “Brief Encounter.” Made in 1945 from a play by Noel Coward, it is the story of a man and woman who meet by chance at a railway station, find they like each others’ company, and after a few friendly get-togethers realize they are falling in love. Their problem is that they are both married, but not to each other, so they sadly agree their love can’t be consummated and say good-bye where they met - which actually is a real station, not a movie set, and has become something of a destination of pilgrimage for devoted fans of this great classic to see where it was shot.
The beautiful 2017 film celebrating the brief (and definitely consummated) romance between two young men, “Call Me By Your Name,” was also shot in a real place, an actual 17th century villa and estate in Northern Italy. Some smart businessman should buy it now and start charging admission, because it is currently for sale and would quickly become a similar shrine for the many, many ardent fans of this amazing movie.
I was a little late to first see this masterpiece (and yes, it is a masterpiece), on a Monday night in March. But after watching it three times and reading Andre Aciman’s stunning 2007 novel of the same title - all in one week, thank you - my judgment that this movie is a masterpiece is neither unusual nor atypical. After reading about this film all over the Internet, it’s fair to say that if you like this movie, you’ll likely be besotted with it, and quite emotionally hung over from the experience.
While I unabashedly love both the novel and the movie, I am grateful I saw the movie first. They both tell the story of Elio Perlman, the precocious 17-year-old son of an American classics professor and Italian mother. Elio speaks 3 languages and is a classical musical prodigy, plays piano and guitar, who falls in love and slowly initiates an affair with his father’s hunky American academic assistant, Oliver, 24, during one of the long summers which Elio and his multilingual parents always spend at their family villa. The inevitable difference between the film and the book is that while the movie visualizes the characters’ actions and expressed words with ultimate cinematic skill and grace, the book is Elio’s rich inner narrative of being new to manhood, and struggling with the ecstatic frenzy of expressing his love to another man for the first time. Page after page of the novel compounds this much greater dimension to the story, while the film can only indirectly depict Elio’s titanic inner emotions.
If I had read the book first, the movie might have unjustly seemed to be a disappointing, watered down rendition of the great and deeply affecting work of art that in fact inhabits both. However, this takes nothing away from Italian Director Luca Guadagnino’s astonishing film because it is a significant artistic and technical achievement, beautifully scripted by the venerable James Ivory (who was awarded an Oscar for his adopted screenplay), thoughtfully filmed under the direction of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and gracefully acted by Timothée Chalamet as Elio, Armie Hammer as Oliver, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s devoted and caring father. But frankly, the movie is better seen before starting the book because the lyric setting and the actors’ moving performances are the perfect frame for the reader to later visualize the author’s story, as the novel hurtles you around the heaving landscape of Elio’s late adolescent senses, feelings, and passions.
The first time I saw the movie, along with simply being enthralled, I thought how atmospheric and European it is compared to “Ordinary People,” the Best Picture of 1979, which is a very American movie as it is driven by dialogue and plot and less by mood and place. However, both films are similar because the characters are burdened by intense and conflicting emotions. “Ordinary People” also ends with a very moving father’s dialogue with his son, much like what Elio’s father has with his. This very tender scene is one of two great dramatic crescendos at the end of “Call Me By Your Name,” and is all the more profound because few have ever heard their own fathers’ nurture and guide them like this.
Regarding Elio and Oliver in the film, I still have trouble seeing what attraction the latter has to the former! This is somewhat easier to understand in the book, but I think Elio is drawn to Oliver largely because this preternaturally handsome man is right in front of him for week after week, both are Jewish intellectuals, and his 17 year old heart has settled and fixed on him, period, as the idealized being Elio aspires to hold and become. Elio’s adoration of Oliver is also understood by the novel’s eventual account of their intensely emotional sex life.
Yet, despite Elio’s passionate love for him, which the formerly aloof Oliver comes to fully return, he is a flawed character and just does not add up in the end. This, I suspect, was reflected in casting Armie Hammer for the role, because he plays the most unlikely of Jews, far more of a WASP prince in a Ralph Lauren ad, and as emotionally inhibited as any of my fellow members of this particular tribe. In the end, his abandonment of Elio for heterosexual marriage is no surprise.
Along with Elio narrating his own joyful yet tormented inner life, the other big difference between the novel and the movie is the ending. The book’s exuberant night out in Rome, straight out of a Fellini film, sets us all up for Elio’s impending emotional devastation, which ascends from the lovers’ parting to Oliver’s subsequent termination of their relationship, overshadows the rest of the book and haunts the reader long after the last page is closed.
The film’s ending is much sharper - telescoped by the demands of the medium. But as both are equally and eloquently very sad, it is more than fair to credit the film’s ending as authentic and completely true to the book. This is unsurprising given the quality of this film yet wonderful nevertheless, because throughout both the movie and the novel, we are always feeling with and for Elio – his joy, his anxiety and fear, his lust, his ardor and devotion, and in the end his heartbreak.
I have seldom – if ever – been as deeply touched by a romantic movie, or for that matter by any other novel. Admittedly, I am the perfect customer for any kind of Merchant-Ivory gay romance. What’s not to like about handsome men, the Italian countryside, and cultivated people, all inhabiting architecture I have dreamed of for years? And how nice it is to see movie characters reading for pleasure and listening to classical music!
However, my deep appreciation for this story is not just because I may fit the demographics and marketers expect me to like it. “Call Me By Your Name” on page and screen is an achingly beautiful meditation on joy and loss, of having all your heart could want and then watching it vanish right before your eyes, in an instant.
We know this because as always in this story, we are with Elio, never more so than in the film’s final scene, just after his last transatlantic phone call from Oliver has ended. It's Hanukkah and snowing outside, Oliver is back in the United States and has told Elio that he “might be getting married next spring” to a woman he has known “on and off for two years.”
Dazed, disappointed, dejected, Elio wanders into the dining room, crouches before the fireplace, and stares into the crackling flames. The scene then cuts to a head on shot of Elio’s face filling the center right of the frame and then dramatically holds it for three and one half minutes, while to the left the title card appears for the very first time in this movie, and then the credits roll. Dumbstruck by empathy, we watch this young man silently review everything that happened, everything he felt, and everything he had with Oliver, that now is all gone.
An extended wordless close up of one emotive face is a big risk for any director to take. But Luca Guadagnino deserves the highest praise for making it perfect, confident that Timothée Chalamet had the acting chops to rivet our attention for that long, and in us to open up to Elio’s pain. And at the end of this elegiac scene, a fleeting gesture establishes that this connection between character and audience has been made, when for a very brief moment, Chalamet looks straight into the camera lens and then turns away as the screen fades to black.
This is an actor of amazing talent, the real star of a noble film which portrays with such compassion and intelligence the love two men can have for each other, simply because we are people, just people.
I could go on and on about the technical aspects of the production that make this movie a masterpiece, but not now. Ultimately, this novel and movie recall great and wonderful feelings often forgotten with age. But simultaneously, both also point out experiences that are rare and even absent for many. Romantic love is not overrated, but because not everyone finds or keeps it, it is wildly oversold. Life’s arbitrary circumstances can place the exuberant emotions of elation and joy just out of reach, and instead of nourishing the soul, their tantalizing inaccessibility only mocks desire.
We too look into the fireplace, in company with Elio.