During the summer of 1983, 17 year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends his days writing music, swimming, and lounging around the Italian countryside with his friends. However, his life is changed forever when graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives to work with Elio’s father.
The Italian landscape has provided a luscious setting for romance narratives, and Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel assuredly asserts its place in this canon. The film opens, ambiguously, ‘somewhere in Northern Italy’ and this indeterminate location immediately establishes the queer sensibilities of the film.
Oliver is an immediately arresting presence in the film as Hammer’s striking athletic physique dominates the screen – especially in contrast to Elio’s angular, adolescent frame. Oliver’s body is fetishised by the camera, which lingers on his curved muscles and bronze skin. Presented as a real-life Michelangelo’s David, Guadagnino overtly conflates his muscular body with those of the statues Oliver researches. This underscores the queer eroticism of the film with the inherent homoeroticism of the classical statues mirroring Elio and Oliver’s own sexual desires.
As the summer goes on, so too does their attraction. One of the most masterful elements of the direction is the slow, smouldering development of erotic tension towards the first sexual encounter. Even minor gestures become imbued with erotic significance and intensity – from shared glances, to fingers brushing against each other as they pass in the street.
In a similar style to Blue is the Warmest Colour, Guadagnino emphasises the erotic overtones of eating to signify the pair’s sexual desires. He also exploits the colourful sensuality and textures of the Italian landscape to underscore the blossoming intensity of first love.
The film addresses 1980s homosexuality, right in the middle of the Aids epidemic, where so much was communicated through code. Oliver asks Elio, “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? We can’t talk about those kinds of things,” since they do not have a ‘permitted’ language to express their emotions outside of a heterosexual framework. Guadagnino uses these unspoken gestures of queer love as moments of incredible emotional poignancy, most beautifully demonstrated as Oliver and Elio hold hands and spin through an abandoned Italian street together whilst the film’s dizzying piano score builds, signifying how their love can only able be celebrated in private. It is as exhilarating and intense an experience as any of cinema’s great love stories.