Here’s the movie of the year for incurable romantics, a rapturous ode to first love that sweeps you up on waves of dizzying eroticism and then sweetly, emphatically leaves you emotionally shattered. For almost a year, Call Me By Your Name – the latest from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), a master cinema sensualist – has been a sensation on the film festival circuit. Now this ravishment of image and sound finally goes into wide release. You do not want to miss it.
Set in northern Italy in the summer of 1983, this love story transports you to a place where passion and memory collide. Elio Perlman (a flawless Timothée Chalamet; remember the name) is 17, multilingual, musically gifted and skilled at flirting with the local girls near the villa of his parents – an American professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his translator wife (Amira Casar). Then an intern arrives from the U.S. to assist his father with research into Greco-Roman culture. He’s Oliver (Armie Hammer), 24, 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, always saying “later” instead of goodbye. Then an attraction develops, slowly, fiercely and irrevocably.
At first, Elio and Oliver dance cautiously around their unspoken attraction. On a bike trip to the town square, they make teasing loops toward and away from each other. Stopping at a war monument, with the camera observing them at a distance, Elio and Oliver can’t yet verbalize the magnetism their bodies can’t help making plain. The yearning is almost palpable, with both men running off with local girls as a means to test the other. Sex is everywhere in this Italian Eden, where a swim, a hot glance or a stroll among the apricot trees has the impact of an aphrodisiac. But the bond between Elio and Oliver goes deeper. The older man waits for the younger one to make the initial move, and when it happens the floodgates of carnality and confusion open wide. Kudos to Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory – 88 and still alive to the thrill of nuance – 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.
Bring out the superlatives to describe the prizeworthy performances of the lead actors, who instill their roles with fire, feeling and flashing humor. You may be shocked by what the duo do to a juicy peach, but you can bet on those stolen moments earn their place in the sex-in-cinema time capsule. Still, it’s the film’s wisdom and nurturing compassion that stay with you. What Elio and Oliver discover in each other opens their eyes to a world beyond themselves. Hammer (The Social Network, J. Edgar) is a revelation, giving his most complex screen role to date the tightrope thrill of full immersion. And Chalamet, who can also be seen right now seducing Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, is nothing less than the acting discovery of the year. Watch as the ends credits roll and he holds the camera in reactive closeups that will wreck you. And all praise to Stuhlbarg, who is poetic and profound in a crucial scene of empathy in which a father openly encourages his son to follow his true nature, risks be damned.
Working from Andre Aciman’s justly acclaimed 2007 novel, Guadagnino revels in the pleasures of the flesh without losing touch with thought and feeling, while the gifted cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom covers this garden of temptations in seductive light and shadow. The film’s emotions are as naked as its bodies. In the book, Elio and Oliver meet again after 20 years. In the film, Guadagnino shows us only what is; it’s up to audiences to take the film home and keep it close.
The movie is bound to be compared to such recent gay 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. As Elio’s father says of the art he studies, “there’s not a straight line in any of these statues; they’re all curved, as if daring you to desire them.” Call Me By Your Name dares its audience in the same way. It’s a swooning new classic and one of the very best films of the year.