André Aciman’s much lauded 2007 novel gets a lush, voluptuous, funny and heartbreaking treatment in its big screen adaptation, Call Me by Your Name. Thanks to career-defining performances, a subtle and elegant screenplay by James Ivory (Maurice) and intelligent, playfully seductive direction by Luca Guadagnino, who also made I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, the movie, a gay coming-of-age story, is a more than worthy companion piece to Moonlight, Brokeback Mountain and Carol.
The seductively slow film is set in the early 1980s and charts the dizzying, wholly unexpected and life-changing romantic relationship that erupts between Oliver—a dashing, breezily confident, Jewish, 20-something American doctoral student (Armie Hammer) who is spending a six-week summer sojourn in languorous, sun-flecked northern Italy—and Elio, the talented, broody, often bratty 17-year-old budding musician (Timothée Chalamet), who is the son of Oliver’s professorial mentor and host Dr. Lyle Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the gracious, lovely Annella (Amira Casar). Elio, less secure in his own Jewishness as he is everything else, trembles on the brink of self-identity and discovery. Nothing about Oliver is wishy-washy. He’s supremely confident, chiseled and breezily aware of his effect on people.
Between bouts of Oliver charming Elio’s warm-hearted, food-loving parents, exploring the nooks and crannies of their gorgeous 17th-century villa or assisting Lyle in archiving the finds of Greco-Roman sculpture at a nearby lake dig, the two young men become friends during bike rides, impromptu swims, walks through town, and discussions of music, literature and the mysteries of life. Slowly, under the constant plying of perfect sunlight, intoxicatingly lush scenery, brilliant music choices (John Adams, The Psychedelic Furs, Bach, Giorgio Moroder, Sufjan Stevens) and feasts of food—Guadagnino and Hammer even sensually supercharge a moment when Oliver eats a lush, dripping egg yolk—their feelings shift from wary to competitive to brotherly to confused to deeply in love.
That the film’s lovers are male is, for American movies in particular, still revolutionary.
At first, Elio’s budding sexual awakening finds Oliver every bit as mysterious, exotic and desirable an object as Marzia (Esther Garrel), his pretty, sensual girlfriend; later, his feelings toward the girl cool while his passion for the older man grows overwhelming. Outside of the work of directors François Truffaut or Eric Romer, the confusion, elation, ache and heady rush of first love has rarely been depicted as authentically, appealingly and painfully as it is here.
That the lovers are male is, for American movies in particular, still revolutionary. There’s nothing queasy or exploitive about the filmmakers’ handling of the material. Everything here is about furtive glances, missed connections, longing, silences, reading meanings in the casual brushing of shoulders or touch of a hand. It’s clear how much Guadagnino adores his actors and he has nurtured exquisite care and tenderness between the characters played by Hammer (never more relaxed, touching nor charismatic) and the 21-year-old Chalamet (a major talent and a revelation). In scene after scene, Oliver worries about damaging the young, sensitive, impressionistic Elio and goes out of his way to avoid pressuring him; time and again, Elio reads Oliver’s reticence as a sign that he is either disinterested or slipping away. Their bond feels as unforced and warm as their desire and affection seem genuine.
They, aided and abetted by the direction, script and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s honeyed cinematography, make us believe that both characters’ lives are changed deeply and forever because they knew and loved each other. Michael Stuhlberg, a consistently brilliant actor in A Serious Man, Hitchcock, The Shape of Water and on Boardwalk Empire, is wonderful here, too, delivering an act three monologue that should reduce many a viewer to puddles. But it’s Chalamet’s final scene that delivers the quietly devastating killer blow—in a film that overflows with them—and it should also guarantee him award nominations and a brilliant future. Call Me by Your Name is one of the great movies of the year.
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