“Is it better to speak or die?” Elio is on the cusp of becoming an adult. Whilst he is book-smart and obviously older than his years, Elio’s emotional maturity and inability to distract himself from the presence of Oliver is the evocative aesthetic this film tenderly guides us through.
It’s the summer of 1983, in a sun-drenched city near Lake Garda in northern Italy. An American-Italian teenager named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends his summer transcribing classical music, reading and flirting with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel), all in the beautiful surroundings of an ostentatious 17th century Italian villa — that is, until Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American scholar, arrives to assist Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) with his archaeological study. Oliver captivates the family with his charismatic passivity, bordering on arrogance, yet it is Elio who becomes most frustrated by Oliver’s presence that summer.
Elio and Oliver’s relationship is one of mixed signals, acts of bravado and secret notes. Their feelings are plain for everyone but themselves to see, as they play out a cat-and-mouse game of subtle, noncommittal advances. Their dynamic relationship blossoms as the two swap power positions over bike rides, flirting with girls and subtle glances of lust.
Director Luca Guadagnino explores what it feels like to live within this disconcerting relationship. The lingering cinematography focuses on the nuances of teenage love, muddled complexities of sexuality and, of course, an infamous peach scene that could rival Jason Biggs’ difficulty with an apple pie in American Pie. Guadagnino fills every scene with symbolic fluidity that reveals the extraordinary delicacy of love within this allusive story.
For all the raw, symbolic and cinematographic nuances this film details, it is the exceptional performances that really elevate it. Timothée Chalamet is mesmerising in his performance of Elio. His depiction of a teenager coming to terms with both adulthood and his own sexuality is played to perfection, with a harmonious parallel to a fallen angel from a Caravaggio painting. The invisible bonds created within the characters and the capacity for compassion between generational differences transforms this simple summer love story into a gut-wrenching, wistful portrait of two lovers trying to find themselves before summer is gone and it’s all too late.
When the summer inevitably ends and Oliver departs back to America, first love’s heartbreak is in full swing for poor Elio. His father, which has been played by an almost-vacant Michael Stuhlbarg up to this point, delivers a speech of unconditional compassion and confession that reveals the most unforgettably moving scene. This climactic scene sums up the enormity of emotion and cultural sophistication that this film personifies. As a viewer, you cannot help but feel this is a turning point in how filmmakers have depicted a coming-out and coming-of-age story. Without focusing on solitary, arbitrary reactions, there is a tender openness of social awareness and generational acceptance that unveils the true essence of this hauntingly beautiful and poignant story.