Call Me by Your Name, the newest film from Italian director Luca Guadagnino, opens with its credits over a montage of photographs of busts and statues from antiquity. They are young men, as imagined by Greek and Roman sculptors, in the prime of their lives — at their most powerful, yet also their most vulnerable. The exquisite artistry imbues the faces of the men with hints of emotions, love that runs the gamut from the spiritual to the carnal. In many ways, the love story that Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory tell immediately afterward feels incredibly new and essentially modern, but the opening sequence also suggests a tale as old as civilization.
Based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman, Call Me by Your Name takes place “Somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983, as the onscreen text indicates. While the father of seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet, most recently seen in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird) researches and excavates ancient sculptures, Elio mostly reads and lazes around in the sun, occasionally with his mother (Amira Casar). Joining them for the summer is Mr. Perlman’s new research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer).
To his chagrin, Elio is forced to give up his room to Oliver for the duration of his stay. The two are opposites in many ways, both physically and socially; Oliver is tall and fare, whereas Elio is slight and dark. Oliver keeps to himself, subsisting mostly on a diet of obscure philosophy texts, while Elio lives the life of a teenager who is popular with the local girls. Despite his self-instituted solitude, Oliver can also be brash and boisterous in ways that discomfort the more reserved Elio.
While researching with Mr. Perlman, Oliver’s demonstrative ways and familiar manner start to annoy Elio — except it’s more complicated than that. Something about Oliver draws Elio to him. He’s never experienced these kinds of feelings, this fascination with another person. He has a concurrent relationship with his quasi-girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel, excellent in a difficult part), but his attraction to her simply can’t compete with his interest in Oliver. Their relationship develops in fits and starts, with flirtation and fighting in equal measures.
It’s hard not to be drawn into Call Me by Your Name‘s budding romance. Hammer has never been better or more convincing, his imposing size and inoffensive good looks having always given him a mild sheen of entitlement, a patina of privilege. The film uses that impression to its advantage, and opposite Chalamet he is finally able to shed it.
Chalamet is one of the revelations of the film. As strong as his small role in Lady Bird is, it can’t quite prepare viewers for his abilities here. He excels at embodying contradictions, playing a teenager who acts as if he doesn’t care a lick for the attention of others, yet also desperately desires it. In an early scene, Elio plays variations on a theme by Bach on the piano for Oliver, recomposing each new version in the style of a different composer. Chalamet acts it as if Elio dashes off the variations out of boredom, but in reality he wants to impress the distant Oliver.
Call Me by Your Name walks a difficult line when it comes to the physical nature of Elio and Oliver’s relationship. André Aciman’s original novel, as well as James Ivory’s screenplay, feature extensive sex scenes and copious nudity, yet Guadagnino removed almost all the latter, and chose to make the sex scenes more suggestive than detailed. The move has come in for criticism, especially from those still disappointed at the lack of lovemaking in last year’s Moonlight. There’s a case to be made that a sensitive love story could still be told in an erotically charged movie with plenty of sex, but history suggests the odds are low. Foreign filmmakers have shown that romance and explicit sex can coexist in films, but, one person’s erotic masterpiece is often another’s trashy act of exploitation. By paring down Ivory’s screenplay, Guadagnino actually strengthens it. Ivory is a master of understatement and hidden desire (The Remains of the Day and Maurice being two of his best examples), and removing the explicitness allows the audience to construct its own kind of tenderness.
Guadagnino’s work here is indebted to the sensual style of other gay romances like Moonlight or Carol (2015), and as with those films, Call Me by Your Name is a symphony of color and light, thanks to the director and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The film is enlivened by the deep golden light of Northern Italy, but it’s a complete invention of Mukdeeprom — the film was beset by endless rain during the production, and that warm light is all artificial. Oliver and Elio’s romance is tender and sweet enough to demand a fittingly romantic locale, and the film’s version of Italy fits it perfectly.
Despite the all the sumptuous beauty of the images, the most affecting scene occurs in a dark study — a long speech toward the end spoken by the father (Michael Stuhlburg), almost verbatim from the book. Its content shouldn’t be revealed, but the film’s humanity culminates in those few tender minutes, admirably delivered by Stuhlbarg. He’s an actor who has amassed an impressive number of excellent performances in a fairly short period, but the intimacy and compassion he brings to this speech make it perhaps the most moving and impressive work of his career.
Call Me by Your Name depicts a time of transition for the young Elio, and while the exact path of his future is uncertain, it will almost surely hold bigger and brighter things to come.