Considered a frontrunner for the 2018 Academy Awards, director Luca Guadagnino’s new film Call Me by Your Name is one of the more powerful and beautiful movies of the year. As with any great movie, it leaves you with that distinct post–movie sense that you actually learned or felt something new. But what makes Call Me by Your Name so different is the way in which it so heavily brings art back into film.
Set in a villa of northern Italy in the summer 1983, the plot follows Elio, the son of a professor of archaeology, and his family. The focus quickly shifts to the budding romance between Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s visiting doctoral student, Oliver (played by Armie Hammer). The relationship is tender and beautiful on its own, but Guadagnino enhances these qualities of it with the film’s cinematography.
The distinctive feature of this movie is not just its inclusion of artistic elements, but also its application of them. There are too many Nicholas Sparks movies that tell and retell the same love story. In these, the focus is on the couple themselves. And though Call Me by Your Name maintains this, it also pairs it with interspersed artistic moments of awkwardness that make the relationship more tangible and accessible.
As it is midsummer in Italy, the gardens are verdant, the rivers are a pristine blue, and the trees are overflowing with ripe fruit. Each morning, Elio’s family shares breakfasts of citrus and soft–boiled eggs, and each evening, they drink wine in the twilight of their backyard. In these meals and the lush natural setting of the villa’s backyard are overtones of abundance that are reminiscent of a Cézanne still life of peaches. And in the scenes of darkness, there is an ever–present tinge of blue so that the lights of a nearby town almost resemble Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Certainly not a coincidence.
The summer heat and the cropped clothing of the '80s keep the characters shirtless for a significant amount of the movie. Even when they’re fully clothed, their outfits are loose and billowy. But this exposure allows for a comparison between the human bodies of the main characters and those of the statues that Elio’s father is studying. In one scene, the father comments on the posture of a certain statue to Oliver, giving him a knowing glance as he explains that the torsion of his upper half “dares you to desire it.” It is a comparison between the bodies of Elio and the body of a perfectly sculpted figurine, a parallel of reality and the aesthetic.
Most evocative of all, however, is the now infamous peach scene of the movie. After beginning to acknowledge his physical feelings for Oliver, Elio continues to explore them via a peach from one of the backyard trees. This scene is one of the most suggestive and sexual of the entire movie, and while any fruit choice probably would’ve done the trick, the peach has an artistic implication. In art and writing dating all the way back to ancient China, the peach has been a symbol of homosexuality and love. Even today, the peach emoji maintains an erotic connotation. This piece of fruit becomes a tangible connection between Elio and Oliver, especially after the latter takes a bite out of it himself.
The beauty behind Call Me by Your Name is inherent in its cinematography. It’s the final summation of each small element that brings a natural power to the relationship of Elio and Oliver, in the spirit of Romantic English poets like Keats. Guadagnino further enforces the development of this power by filming the movie chronologically, building the emotional momentum toward the tragic fireplace scene at the end. But it’s the artistic focus on the sway of the peach trees, the glide of bodies through water, and the soft turn of a page blown by the wind that make the romance of this movie so beautiful.
This film is dripping in desire and overtly sexual in its various forms of symbolism, but it’s also of self–discovery, excitement, and regret. We get to follow Elio in not only finding his sexuality, but also gathering confidence as he transitions from adolescence to adulthood. It doesn’t give you the happy ending you crave, but instead moves you with a motivating final speech from Elio’s father about the importance of feeling something over nothing, even if that means deep pain and sadness.