Call Me By Your Name is coming to theaters. Get your tickets here!
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
-Alfred Lord Tennyson
No book or film can ever encapsulate the entirety of a love story, for some loves last a lifetime. Therefore, even with the source material, it would be unrealistic to expect that Luca Guadagnino’s film adaptation of André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name could capture every nuance of Elio Perlman’s (Timothée Chalamet) summer of love. Yet, despite the differences between the film and the novel, Guadagnino does succeed in exquisitely visualizing the essence of that summer, “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983, when seventeen-year-old Elio meets Oliver (Armie Hammer) and falls in love for the first time. It’s this essence, in both versions of the story, that will resonate with audiences long after they close the book or leave the theater – its seemingly simple concept that love should never be denied or left unsaid.
Unlike the film’s young protagonist, Aciman's 2007 novel is told from the perspective of an older, wiser Elio looking back on the summer he fell for his professor father’s live-in protégé. There are nearly one hundred pages (out of 248) in which we intimately traverse the internal desires of this well-read and introverted musical prodigy as he obsessively yearns for Oliver in silence. For weeks, he agonizes over his feelings. Spending hours upon hours waiting for Oliver to return home, wondering where he is and who he’s with, and, most of all, why these thoughts have suddenly consumed him. Finally, he conjures the courage to speak his feelings out loud – an action inspired by a quote from a book, no less: “Is it better to speak or to die?” Aciman expertly portrays the unspoken desire between these characters and deserves endless accolades for his stunning exploration of a young man’s sexual awakening and the exhilarating release of such pent-up desire. When the two finally do consummate their love, it’s their unparalleled connection and the novel’s unadulterated portrait of intimacy that pierces your heart.
While the film beautifully portrays many intimate scenes from the book, it has the unenviable task of visually interpreting the couple’s stifled desire behind every stolen glance and graze of flesh without Elio’s internal dialogue. That said, Chalamet’s performance is breathtakingly brilliant, displaying both awkward confidence and heartbreaking vulnerability. However, aside from the actors’ mannerisms, facial expressions, and a few Sufjan Stevens songs woven into the narrative, there are a few moments where the subtleties of their interactions might be lost on the audience. For example, there’s a moment in the book and film where Elio pulls away from Oliver’s touch. With Elio’s narrative, we immediately know he does this because he likes it too much, whereas in the film, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the interaction, since we’re still as uncertain as Elio is about his own feelings, as well as Oliver’s intentions.
Hammer’s performance is also excellent. His portrayal of Oliver’s cautiousness hints that he’s had experiences before where he learned the necessity of restraint. As a result, his reluctance to speak or act becomes a reminder of the societal ignorance that prevents him from freely displaying his feelings for Elio. Not to mention, the general fear of uncertainty and rejection that comes in any situation where one dares to offer up their heart to another. Thankfully, Elio’s youthful craving for Oliver overpowers these fears, prodding him to unapologetically pursue his heart’s desire. What both the film and the novel share that is so exquisite is a safe haven for this love to exist. Aside from their own stubborn inability to admit what they want, there is nothing preventing them from being together.
Fans of the novel may come away from the film feeling that it missed a few important beats, or, perhaps, that the subtleties between Elio and Oliver are a little too subtle. Additionally, they may find – although the book itself doesn’t offer much in the way of closure – that the ending feels incomplete. However, I’d counter that this incompleteness is precisely what makes the final moments of the film so perfect, since Elio’s story, his life itself, is just beginning. Were we never to revisit Elio Perlman on screen again (which Guadagnino has hinted we shall), we know from experience, and the look on his face, that he will carry the memories of that summer with him – those resonating self-discoveries and that incomparable first love – for the rest of his life.
Call Me By Your Name encapsulates the sentiment that love is love. Its story challenges those who fear the emotion and those who run away from it. Illustrating that only those courageous enough to confront it, to be humbled and broken by it, inspire the greatest love stories. Like so many before it that have seeped into our lives, Elio and Oliver’s love is so well depicted that it continues to exist for us off the page and screen. The novel and film are ones we’ll revisit again and again, rightfully earning them a place among the greatest love stories of all time. This story is truly a celebration of love. Every bittersweet, excruciating moment of love, from the first flutter of butterflies in your stomach to the all-encompassing flames of desire. Those moments in the summer sun when someone had the courage to speak their feelings and every precious memory that followed, reminding us that it is always better to have loved and lost.