Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name is a film that vividly and convincingly communicates the intangible, that mysterious alchemy that happens when romantic longing gives way to lust and then blossoms unexpectedly into love. It's the story of an impossible relationship — impossible not because it is forbidden, but because it comes with a built-in countdown clock — that intensifies over a single summer, and then diffuses like afternoon sunlight through the leaves of an apricot tree.
The movie opens in 1983, somewhere in northern Italy, on a sprawling villa surrounded by an orchard heavy with fruit. Our protagonist is Elio (Timothée Chalamet), an American 17-year-old who's fluent in multiple musical instruments and languages. Every summer, Elio's archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hires an assistant to live in the family's vacation home, and this year it's 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), whose arrival in this sleepy Italian hamlet stops all of Elio's female friends in their tracks.
But Elio finds himself just as besotted, although maybe he's not exactly sure why. His fascination with Oliver initially appears to be the sort of innocent attraction that adolescents often feel about anyone who's only slightly older and yet exudes the kind of confidence that seems almost supernatural when you're a teenager. Hammer's casting is one the film's smartest gambits: He's handsome in a way that's both magnetic and strangely generic; we're drawn to him while also projecting onto him our own notions of who he is and what he wants.
As Elio and Oliver bike through sun-dappled valleys by day and party in the open-air discotheques at night, they bond over their love of art and poetry, and how their Jewish heritage has made them feel like outcasts. Their flirtation begins as playful fraternization, an almost antagonistic, brotherly game of one-upmanship that has Elio adopting a swagger that fits him about as well as a suit that's two sizes too big. He and Oliver share a bathroom, which inspires more furtive glances, and the occasional flash of accidental nudity.
Then comes the scene in which the two men finally confront one another in the town square about their feelings, a small masterpiece of performance and craft: It's photographed in a single take by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, whose camera dreamily drifts between the two men and the architecture that surrounds them, while a rippling piano piece by André Laplante ebbs and flows on the soundtrack. Soon they're running off together, sneaking a caress when no one's looking, all the while aware neither of them are long for Italy.
Amongst the film's many rapturous reviews (add mine to the pile) is some pushback from both sides of the moral aisle — those who are scandalized by the age difference separating Elio and Oliver, and those who have derided their sex scenes for being too chaste and sanitized. Both reactions, I think, misinterpret the movie's purpose: Like Todd Haynes' equally brilliant romance Carol, this is a film less concerned about its characters succumbing to carnal desires than it is what drives those desires, and there's certainly nothing predatory or prurient about it. (I can't recall another movie that places as much importance on mutual consent.)
The movie closes with two small but powerful moments: One is a perceptive and touching monologue delivered by Stuhlbarg, and the other is a minutes-long close-up in which the emotional gravity of the previous two hours play out solely on Chalamet's face. Both performances are remarkable, though like the film they're in, they don't announce their greatness until the end, when the weight of everything we've seen comes barreling toward us.
Call Me by Your Name was adapted from André Aciman's 2007 novel by the great James Ivory, and it often recalls the florid, languidly paced period pieces he once made with his professional and personal partner, the late Ismail Merchant. Ivory has found an unlikely kindred spirit in Guadagnino, a sensualist whose two previous films, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, were awash in visual opulence and baroque in style. Call Me by Your Name is far more restrained by comparison, and while it's lustier than any Merchant-Ivory production, it is similarly fascinated by the importance of what is said and not said.
In traditional romances, the two people who fall in love are defined by one another: There's a preordained set of circumstances designed to bring them together, immediately followed by manufactured obstacles that test their devotion or drive them apart. What's different and refreshing about Call Me by Your Name is that we understand Elio and Oliver as individuals long before they're in the throes of passion, which makes the relationship more meaningful and its inevitable dissolution all the more heartbreaking.
It is a delicate work of art, simultaneously ethereal and earthy, the cinematic equivalent of a proclamation of undying love whispered in your ear on a moonlit night. ♦