Heavy with summer heat yet so light, so lyrical, in its vision of that catch-of-breath space between adolescence and adulthood, Call Me by Your Name is a revelation – a richly evocative reminder of that time of life when cuddles with parents overlap with the nervous, excited baring of body and soul of first love.
Seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Chalamet) is on that cusp, and he can feel it. It’s making him scratchy. An only child vacationing with his parents in their villa in northern Italy in 1983, Elio fills the days lazily: swimming, eating, napping, transcribing music (he’s a talented pianist), sometimes bored, sometimes sullen from the displacement of being no longer a kid, but not quite an adult. In other words – a teenager. That displacement turns literal in the opening moments of the film, when Elio must cede his bedroom to Oliver (Hammer), an American grad student come abroad to intern with Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg), an antiquities scholar. “The usurper,” Elio smirkingly nicknames Oliver, in French; one of the film’s seductive qualities – of which there are many, including the luscious scenery – is the way the whole Perlman family slides in and out of languages, English, French, Italian, and dead, the latter in a charmingly eggheaded pas de deux over etymological roots.
That fluidity in language isn’t showing off. Director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) and screenwriter James Ivory (adapting from André Aciman’s formative novel) layer such details to enrich and distill the relationships. When Elio switches to English with his French girlfriend, she feels the chill. When the close-knit Perlman trio curls up on a rainy night to read aloud a 17th century romance, it’s a perfect summation of their love of learning, of beauty, of opening up to sensation. And when Elio spies a Star of David on a chain around Oliver’s neck, he finds a point of commonality with the American usurper.
Otherwise, they’re a study in contrasts. The solidly built 24-year-old Oliver is confident and bruisingly athletic; Elio, long and lanky, tends to hang on the outskirts of social situations, testing the waters. The first time Oliver touches him – casually, even fraternally – Elio jolts like he’s been shocked. It’s the first spark.
A love affair is inevitable, but Guadagnino doesn’t skim over Elio’s prolonged longing, which is what makes Call Me by Your Name most potent as a coming-of-age picture, not a mere romance. Their age gap has caused some consternation, especially in this particular cultural moment in which consent is rightfully being chewed over on a public stage. It’s worth noting that the film is set in the more permissive early Eighties, and they’re comfortably within the consent laws of Italy. If that doesn’t check the boxes for you, that’s fine; this isn’t the movie for you. Still, the film doesn’t pretend the age gap doesn’t exist. Oliver’s hesitancy in starting the affair, and the care he takes with Elio, are so crucial to the story. In his best work since his breakout in The Social Network, Hammer physically conveys the transformation of Oliver under Elio’s influence, his body tight with restraint, then loosening to the point of a childlike giddiness.
Guadagnino uses a technique throughout of fixing the camera focus and letting his actors move in and out of it, a stylistic choice that reaches its emotional apex with Hammer, at the end of Oliver’s Italian idyll. No words are spoken, but again there’s that layering of detail: We know enough to know the stakes are higher for Oliver, and the camera's shifts from focused to fuzzy subtly convey how full up with feeling he is. Chalamet – who co-starred in Lady Bird, another coming-of-age picture that would make a toothsome double feature with this one – brings great physicality to his part, too. But it’s his face that’ll stop your heart, especially in two prolonged close-ups set to original songs by Sufjan Stevens, confessional lyrics simpatico with the actor’s open face. As for words? The script gives Stuhlbarg – a character actor who elevates everything he’s in – the monologue of a lifetime, which he delivers sotto voce, all kindness.
And that is perhaps the prevailing note of Call Me by Your Name – of kindness, of tenderness. Be it a besotted lover, a best friend, or devoted parents, they’re all a kind of welcoming committee, nurturing Elio into adult feeling. That includes pain. And it is a gift.
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