It’s the summer of 1983 when a doctorate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives in the northern Italy town of Crema to intern for Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), an eminent researcher of Greco-Roman culture and history. The charming Oliver is also greeted at the Perlman villa by the professor’s wife Annella (Amira Casar) and their 17-year-old son Elio (Timothèe Chalamet), the latter of which Oliver strikes up a close friendship…and then something more. Over the course of that one sun-baked summer, Oliver and Elio — seemingly unfettered by the time and place — come to realizations about themselves and each other as they embark on a passionate, transcendent romance.
Call Me by Your Name, which is based on the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, is the latest film from Luca Guadagnino, the Italian director of I Am Love and A Bigger Splash. Guadagnino’s eye, ear and feel for the sensual and the tactile serve this tale of unharnessed first love immaculately, first in establishing the life the Perlmans enjoy at their country villa — where they seem to interact with nature in an organic and intensely pleasurable way — and then in developing the relationship between Oliver and Elio as it blooms from hesitant and flirtatious to fully engaged and inflamed. But Guadagnino’s technique is less showy here than on his previous film, the director content instead to observe the story with the same summery languor in which it unfolds.
The charismatic Perlmans — the kind of people you’d love to have as your neighbors if you were living in the north of Italy — live a life of culinary delights, sun-drenched ease and enticing intellectual pursuits, with Elio enjoying the all three as well as the attentions of a local girl named Marzia (Esther Garrell). But when the 24-year-old Oliver arrives, the world changes for the 17-year-old Elio. At first the relationship between the teenage boy and the older man is chummy and somewhat aloof, as Oliver drops tantalizing clues here and there about his intentions but keeps the smitten Elio at a slight but tentative distance.
That soon changes, however, and while the age of the story’s protagonists has raised an eyebrow or two along the way to the film’s release, it is clear from the onset that Oliver is no predator and Elio no victim or target. If anything about Call Me By Your Name can be criticized, it’s that the film’s leisurely pace and Guadagnino’s initially austere style keeps the emotional content somewhat at bay; but perhaps that is intentional, because when Elio and Oliver permit their feeling to finally flow through themselves and each other, the movie and viewer get swept up right alongside them in intimate and aching fashion. This is more than just gay cinema (although the book is revered as queer literature); this is a universal story of first love that everyone who’s ever had the experience can relate to acutely.
The performances are magnificent. Chalamet — slim, consciously nonchalant until he’s almost bursting with desire and just slightly androgynous enough to make his sexual explorations with both men and women believable — is a revelation. Meanwhile Hammer, whose all-American looks, booming voice and reach-for-the-ceiling frame seemingly make him a walking, talking prototype of white cis hetero malehood, subverts Hollywood’s attempts to make him into an action figure with a sensitive, restrained performance that reveals the complex layers and ultimately the conflict underneath. And Stuhlbarg (who also does great work in the upcoming The Shape of Water) once again proves why he is one of the most humane players on the current film scene. He delivers a soliloquy for the ages to Chalamet in the film’s closing minutes, a speech so profound, moving and compassionate, so filled with love and empathy and understanding, that it left this reviewer trembling on the edge of tears (credit to legendary screenwriter James Ivory as well for adapting the words faithfully from the novel).
The combination of that speech and the movie’s final shot — a silent, unbroken close-up of Chalamet’s face underneath the end credits — elevate an already great film into something else. Guadagnino has made the exploration of love and sexuality his mandate over the course of these last few films (and it should be interesting to see how he applies his deeply warm approach to both to his next film, a remake of the horror masterpiece Suspiria) but with Call Me by Your Name, he powerfully deciphers just how transformative both can be –and how universal that experience is.
Call Me by Your Name is playing now in Los Angeles and New York, with more theaters to follow.