Body Language in Call Me By Your Name (2017)
I first watched Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s critical darling about a 17-year old’s relationship with a 24-year old visiting professor, online with a stream. The stream did not have any subtitles, but for some reason I felt compelled to carry on watching it.
Something about the film suggested that maybe this was intentional, that perhaps it wasn’t completely necessary to understand everything being said in order for it to convey its message. Due to my lack of understanding of Italian and French I found that many interactions went completely over my head, at least verbally. For instance almost all the interactions between Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and his friend/sort-of love interest Marzia (Esther Garrell) were not in English, and even the majority of the dialogue that Elio shares with his mother Anella (Amira Casar) was in another language. I suppose that in many respects I may well have missed a lot out, perhaps there are some subtleties that escaped me because of watching it like this, but actually I found it brought about a certain focus.
Instead I paid much closer attention to the body language and the dynamics between the characters, and in many ways that’s all you would need to do to understand Elio’s difficult, beautiful and tragic romance with Oliver (Armie Hammer). One of the key reasons my experience wasn’t marred by not always comprehending the language is down to the very nature of Elio’s confusion and feelings.
I gather, that before the start of the film Elio has not realised that he has feelings for men, and if he has, he has not felt compelled to act upon them. Like most major emotions to a 17-year-old, especially one that comes with so many social difficulties, Elio is not particularly equipped to deal with them. He acts overly friendly, cold, gets frustrated and even presents the idea that he does not like Oliver. Up until the consummation of their feelings, almost all hints at the attraction must be read through body language.
If the film’s promotion didn’t hang so heavily on their relationship I think you could be forgiven for completely missing the sexual tension for the first hour. That is to say that, at least in the first hour, so much of the psychology of the characters and their relationship relies on the little nuances of body language. This is done through brilliant acting on the part of Armie, but particularly Timothee, who both embody their characters to the point that it’s hard to believe they are not actually going through this.
I often find that exceptional performers always have the ability to display as much through actions such as ticks, facial expression and movement as they can with dialogue, and in this film both the leads do an incredible job. But it’s not just the acting that displays this body language, much of the beautiful and hazy cinematography throughout focuses heavily on isolated aspects of their bodies, often using in focus close-ups against out of focus backdrops to emphasise the state of the character’s desire. For instance, almost all the scenes that take place around the pool utilise this method to great-effect, with Elio’s actions often betraying any verbal displays. So much so that if you focus on these aspects you can learn more about the characters rather than through what is said.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Elio’s father (played wonderfully by Michael Stuhlbarg) and Oliver are both studying Roman sculptures of men. Elio’s father states that the statues are almost “daring you to desire them” and all without saying anything, this is obviously synecdoche for Elio and Oliver’s desires, and perhaps also for the filmmaker’s approach to displaying desire, and certainly for my point.
The reason I think this is important to highlight is because this is, for me, what sets it apart from many other films about comparable topics. James Ivory (the screenwriter) is renowned for his seemingly stuffy period pieces that are laced with emotional intelligence that elevate his films (I haven’t watched any of them but will certainly after seeing this) and this film is full of just that. Through its use of acting and camera it reaches an almost novelistic level of depth to the characters by using techniques and methods that are wholly unique to cinema. The adaption of this story could have easily been a watered down coming-of-age tale about a young man’s sexual awakening, but because everyone involved seems to have a deep and caring understanding of what it is like to desire and all the complexities that come with it, and importantly how to display this specifically through the language of cinema, the film takes on an intense emotional intelligence that could probably be understood without understanding a single word.
I mean I’m in no way suggesting this is the optimum way to watch it, just that my experience encouraged me to focus more on what is seen, rather than what is heard. I no doubt imagine that so much has and will be written on this, so I focus on this particular aspect of it because it demonstrates to me a layer of depth that so many films lack, but so badly require. This film demonstrates a deep understanding of the cinematic language and ironically it doesn’t require language to demonstrate this.
By Luther Blissett