Why Call Me by Your Name is a brilliant, essential adaptation

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Adaptations are tricky. Films and books come with drastically different advantages and constraints, and the mandate to honor the material — to stay “faithful” — tends to prevent or limit creatively successful interpretation. Those that surpass the typical, well-mounted, stiff fare which fits so neatly into awards season are few and far between. Yet this year, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name has emerged among that class. Its take on André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name is, crucially, an adaptation that’s utterly faithful in spirit while necessarily distinct in execution.

Director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) and screenwriter James Ivory (Maurice) disregard the book’s framing device and compress its time frame; they take the risk of replacing chunks of feverish narration with images and movement and nothing else — with silence. Their choices indicate an ambitious, respectful, and invigorated engagement with Aciman’s words. The end result is a remarkable achievement. Guadagnino neither copies nor dismisses the book on which his film is based — he enhances it.

Set in idyllic northern Italy at the vacation home of 17-year-old Elio and his parents, Call Me by Your Name is a blissful ’80s summer romance that reverberates with passion and aches with the creeping sense of the finite. Aciman’s novel is told from Elio’s perspective, like a memory suffused with longing, the details so precisely described that you feel why it registers for him so momentously. As Elio reveals how he first met Oliver, the 24-year-old doctoral student interning for his archaeologist father — an annual family tradition of letting a stranger stay in his room for a few months — he recounts their courtship with dizzying specificity: how the 6’5” Oliver first appeared to him; how he rattled off his lazy exit line, “Later!”; and how you could never tell whether he was being flirty or friendly. “Did I want him to act? Or would I prefer a lifetime of longing provided we both kept this little Ping-Pong game going: not knowing, not-not-knowing, not-not-not-knowing?” Elio asks himself in narration. “Just be quiet, say nothing, and if you can’t say ‘yes,’ don’t say ‘no,’ say ‘later.’ Is this why people say ‘maybe’ when they mean ‘yes,’ but hope you’ll think it’s ‘no’ when all they really mean is, Please, just ask me once more, and once more after that?

This is how Elio communicates to his reader: He brings you inside his mind, into the maddening, if familiar, cycles of self-doubt and confusion that greet any intense crush. It’s involving in such a way that could prove tiresome if spoken aloud. (Think Mr. Robot, but past-tense and without the twisty unreliability.) Guadagnino keenly understands this; he’s a master sensualist, as proven in films such as I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, and he manages to turn Aciman’s text into feeling with ravenous brilliance. He films Oliver (Armie Hammer) from below, the upward tilt capturing him like the Greek statues Elio describes in the novel, and which we see the professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) handle in the movie. He turns the most fleeting of moments, like Elio (Timothée Chalamet) sniffing Oliver’s underwear or Oliver rubbing Elio’s shoulders, into scenes which linger in the mind. After the shoulder rub, Chalamet whittles paragraphs of obsessive dialogue down to a single, longing, anguished glance. The film is still near-exclusively told from his perspective, only without voiceover. It’s still completely immersive in the touches, the stares, the smells — in everything we see.

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Guadagnino takes advantage of what his medium has to offer. By stripping Call Me by Your Name of its stream-of-consciousness fog, he’s able to thrust you into heat of the moment. The lyrics of Sufjan Stevens’ original songs (which The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III unpacked beautifully) blur the lines of fantasy and reality, momentarily dashing this dreamlike romance with streaks of melancholy; the prickly chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer augments the unfolding love story. (Elio’s piano performance of a Bach piece elicits playful bickering, and his hilariously unflattering impression of Oliver is conveyed with more love than contempt.) Ivory’s script honors — sometimes even recites — Aciman’s most gorgeous pieces of writing, like that iconic peach scene or the professor’s revelatory monologue near the story’s end. But it also honors Aciman by knowing when to cut, scale back, or move in a more cinematic direction. It knows when words won’t suffice.

In the novel, Elio’s voice is as essential as the story itself, but Guadagnino transcends that value by more forcefully confronting a central dilemma posed by Aciman: “Is it better to speak or die?” It’s through this question, which is asked in a French fairy tale that’s read to Elio by his mother, that the book’s queerness comes into focus: The coded language and silent pursuits, seen in such period gay romances as Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (adapted into another great film, Todd Haynes’ Carol), are pondered relentlessly by Elio himself. Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name doesn’t reference “Is it better to speak or die?” beyond its initial reading, and yet the question implicitly, directly informs every beat of the film. The running time is generous, at more than two hours, and with every minute, you intimately feel Elio and Oliver’s time to connect getting shorter.

Sony Pictures Classica

The power of this deliberate pacing comes through when Elio confesses his true feelings. He and Oliver go on a bike ride into town, as they’ve done many times before, and they chat about nothing with such intensity that it feels like it’s about everything. They go back and forth on what the statue in the town square’s center is memorializing; Elio corrects Oliver, telling him it’s about a World War I battle. Oliver, standing at the opposite end of the statue from him, says it’s as if Elio knows everything; Elio responds, with sexy ambiguity, “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” It’s pure catharsis. Guadagnino captures it by gently guiding the pair through a single take. He circles the fountain slowly, only to, at last, find Elio and Oliver meeting side by side. It’s the moment when Elio finally speaks — gathers the courage, answers that encompassing question. It’s also another instance of the film meeting the book after previously diverging, with closely overlapping dialogue and action. The camerawork is vital to the its success: The scene is agonizingly distant until Guadagnino gets into a close two-shot. It uses the cinematic tension of the hour that precedes it to sop up every drop of passion for us to take in.

A great adaptation, fundamentally, is an argument for why a movie deserves to stand beside a book as its own singular entity. Call Me by Your Name is not unadaptable, per se, but it does feature literary tropes that aren’t particularly effective in the context of a movie. The past-tense prose and memory frame of the novel allow Aciman to expand to the present in his conclusion, an epilogue of sorts in which Elio and Oliver meet 20 years after their summer romance came and went. (Oliver ended up marrying a woman not long after.) “Seeing you here is like waking from a 20-year coma,” Oliver says to his former love — confirmation that their romance was unforgettable, a chance for the reader to experience release alongside these two entwined souls.

Guadagnino does away with this. He goes forward only a few months from Oliver’s departure, into winter, with Elio back in the house for Hanukkah. The two have one last conversation by phone; Oliver reveals his engagement. Elio sits by a fire when it’s finished. The film’s credits roll beside him as he grieves what he’s lost, shedding tears across from the crackling flames. This is captured in one uninterrupted take, running for several minutes and performed magnetically by Chalamet. We’re left to just watch Elio, and remember with him. This is the image Call Me by Your Name leaves you with — no words needed. It’s unforgettable.

Call Me by Your Name is currently playing in select theaters. You can purchase the novel here.

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