Call Me by Your Name sneaks up on you.
This sumptuous Italian fantasy, based on André Aciman’s novel, offers much more than just picturesque landscapes. Just as you’ve settled into the idyll that director Luca Gaudagnino has created, it’s stripped away and you are face-to-face with the aching humanity simmering beneath the stunning facade. Call Me by Your Name follows Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a prodigious 17-year old living in the countryside with his college professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and mother (Amira Casar). Set in the early 80’s, Elio spends his days transcribing music by the pool, reading and occasionally spending time with his French girlfriend. Wonderful as this life may seem, Elio is restless and awkward.
His ennui is broken by the arrival of a 24-year old American graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer), who becomes his father’s research assistant for the summer. Oliver is casual and confident with movie star good looks. He breezes in and out of Elio’s life with a curt “Later”. Elio is irritated, intrigued, and aroused by the handsome intruder. The attraction is mutual, and they spend their Italian summer together sizing one another up and trying to make sense of their burgeoning passion. By the time Elio and Oliver finally give in, the summer – and their time together – comes to an end.
Guadagnino sets an incredible stage for this romance, lovingly capturing their flirtations against sun-drenched days and hazy nights. He and screenwriter James Ivory take the time to build their relationship through the quiet moments and slow pacing you would expect from the Italian countryside. For all of their intellectual sparring, male posturing and desperate eroticism, Elio and Oliver’s love blossoms in the silences, when they drop their respective guards and share their insecurities, fears and joys. The words they don’t, and can’t, speak out loud give even their most languid interactions an intense charge. Subtext drips from every scene, like the juice of a ripe, split peach.
Speaking of, Call Me by Your Name‘s most infamous scene subverts its explicit sexuality to serve as the film’s emotional core. The scene is less about Elio’s sexual act with the peach than the intense feelings that inspire it: the arousal, shame, embarrassment and even gratitude when Oliver attempts to engage with the peach himself. It’s in this moment that Elio realizes how deeply he loves and cares for this man, how much time they’ve wasted, and how little of it they have left. The realization is shattering for him, leaving him broken and sobbing in Oliver’s arms. Instead of being salacious or absurd, the scene is a tender lament of love that can’t last but is worth the scars it’ll leave behind. It serves as a companion for Elio’s transformative conversation with his father after Oliver departs, where he receives the kind of acceptance and affirmation that could change lives.
The peach scene, and most of Call Me By Your Name, works largely because of its two excellent leads. Timothée Chalamet, a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar nomination, is incredible. He channels all of Elio’s frantic physical energy into every cell of his body and lets its run wild. Chalamet dives fearlessly into the teenager’s intelligence, petulance, insecurity and pain, sometimes conveying all of the emotions with one look, as he does in the film’s astonishing final scene. Armie Hammer is similarly revelatory as Oliver, having finally found a role that delivers on the promises of his breakthrough performance in The Social Network. Unlike Elio, Oliver is aware of the real-world ramifications of their romance, but he falls hard anyway, and Hammer communicates the internal struggle with remarkable warmth and vulnerability. Together, Chalamet and Hammer have excellent chemistry, gliding between playful and passionate moments like soulmates. Michael Stuhlbarg is also worthy of praise as Elio’s father. He picks up the pieces of Elio’s broken heart when Oliver leaves, and Stuhlbarg peels back the layers of distant intellectualism to offer that compassionate, heart-rending missive.
Call Me by Your Name is deceptive in the best way, subverting its beauty to reveal achingly human truths about life. It’s a beautiful portrait of the kind of first love we don’t appreciate, or even acknowledge, enough. Guided by sensitive direction and landmark performances from its stars, Call Me by Your Name is a celebration of life-changing intimacy and easily one of the year’s best films.