Luca Guadagnino’s films are all about the transformative power of nature. They illustrate the way it allows our true selves to shine through, as well as allowing us to pursue our hidden passions. Guadagnino vividly portrays the outside world as almost a character in itself. He drives the storyline in a way that urges the other characters to be bold. Never has this been more apparent than in Call Me By Your Name. This lush and vibrant masterpiece is set amid the warm, sunny skies, gentle breezes and charming, tree-lined roads of northern Italy.
The story is set in 1983. The narrative centers around a summer fling between a mid-20s graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) — the seventeen-year-old son of the professor with whom Oliver is working. Oliver also happens to be staying at the professor’s lavish estate. Hammer’s character is a handsome, athletic charmer, and an outrageous flirt. At first, the slender Elio is irritated by the visitor’s attention-grabbing body and his American slang. Oliver is always saying “later” instead of goodbye. Then, an attraction develops…slowly, fiercely and irrevocably.
Elio is once again visiting his family’s summer home with his parents. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an esteemed professor of Greco-Roman culture. His mother (Amira Casar) is a translator and gracious hostess. Elio has the gangly body of a boy, but with an intellect and a quick wit beyond his years. He has a worldliness his parents have fostered within him. This facet allows him to affect the façade of sophistication. Beneath the bravado, a gawky and self-conscious kid sometimes still emerges. At first, Elio and Oliver dance cautiously around their unspoken attraction. On a bike trip to the town square, they make teasing jabs at one another.
Stopping at a war monument, with the camera observing them at a distance, Elio and Oliver can’t yet verbalize the magnetism their bodies have. Oliver is everything Elio isn’t. Or at least, that’s our primary perception of him. Tall, gorgeous and supremely confident, he is the archetypal all-American hunk. They’re also both intellectuals. Oliver is an archaeologist and a classicist with formidable philosophical training. He reads Stendhal for fun. Elio, who’s trilingual (in English, French, and Italian), is a music prodigy who transcribes music by ear. Chalamet and Hammer have just ridiculous chemistry from the get-go, even though (or perhaps because) their characters are initially prickly toward each other. They’re constantly testing, pushing, and feeling each other out. All the while, they’re constantly worrying about what the other person thinks.
Is Oliver the first man with whom Elio has had an intimate relationship? Has Elio been able to acknowledge, even to himself, his attraction to other men? Or is the awakening of desire for a male a new experience for him? What about for Oliver? Sex is everywhere in this Italian Eden. A swim, a hot glance, or a stroll among the apricot trees has the impact of an aphrodisiac. The older man waits for the younger one to make the initial move. When it happens, the floodgates of carnality and confusion open wide. Kudos to Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory for giving these scenes time to play out and resonate. Exploitation isn’t the point here…connection is. “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” says Oliver, seeking an intimacy beyond the physical.
Ivory’s generous, sensitive adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel reveals these characters and their ever-evolving dynamic in beautifully steady yet detailed fashion. When Elio and Oliver finally dare to reveal their true feelings for each other — a full hour into the film — the moment makes you hold your breath with its intimate power. The way Elio and Oliver peel away each other’s layers has both a sweetness and a giddy thrill to it, even though they feel they must keep their romance a secret from Elio’s parents. The intimacy of Elio and Oliver is matched by very little cinematic intimacy. What Elio and Oliver discover in each other opens their eyes to a world beyond themselves.
Hammer is a revelation, giving his most complex screen role to date. Chalamet is nothing less than the acting discovery of the past couple years. Oliver’s evolution is quite crucial to the film, and Hammer finds the tricky balance between the character’s swagger and his vulnerability as he gives himself over to this exciting affair. He’s flirty but tender. The couple’s love scenes are heartbreaking and intensely erotic all at once.
The film is bound to be compared to such recent queer film landmarks as Brokeback Mountain, Carol and the Oscar-winning Moonlight. But this masterpiece goes its own transcendent way. With Oliver, Elio feels he can talk about “things that matter.” The beauty part is that these “things” matter to all of us — regardless of sexual orientation — when we’re gutted for the first time by that thing called love.