The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The heady intoxication of love, particularly in its most fleeting forms, is difficult to articulate. It’s unquantifiable when it comes, and often, we don’t recognize it for what it was until long after it’s already passed on. It’s born of overwhelming physical or intellectual want (or both), and burns in a way so totally irresponsible that there’s no sane way for it to last forever. And it shouldn’t. Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s masterful adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel, recreates this feeling with incredible clarity, reveling in the small details and painful realizations of a summer romance that both parties know is finite. It’s a transcendent love story, and a work of overwhelming empathy.
It’s 1983 in northern Italy. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is 17 years old, and lives in a villa with his parents (Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg). In the summers, his father (an antiquities professor) does on-site research work, and writes his books. They’re busy in the day, most of the time, leaving Elio to his own devices. For a 17-year-old, Elio’s are high-minded: he reads, he transcribes sheet music. Sometimes he goes out and socializes, but oftentimes he ends up doing one of those things anyway. In a few respects, Elio is like any other teenager. He’s a talented pianist, but quietly seethes when he’s asked to perform for houseguests. He’s lightly embarrassed by his cultured, affectionate parents. He’s figuring out his sexuality. But there’s more to Elio than Call Me lets on at first, something unspoken.
At least it’s unspoken until the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student set to intern under Elio’s father for the summer. Oliver is everything Elio thinks he’s not: suave, confident, and attractive in an intimidating, utopian-ideal sort of way. Oliver settles in quickly, he and Elio feeling each other out, the mid-twentysomething Oliver immediately perceptive about Elio’s insecurities. Oliver asks Elio what he does for fun in their modest village, and Elio responds that he waits for the summer to end. But the kinship builds. They have long conversations, Oliver impressed with Elio’s preternatural intelligence, but somewhat put off by his uptight manner. They discuss philosophy, and occasionally the local girls. Elio takes Oliver to the local nightclubs, where Oliver breaks out into the kind of dance moves that only a serenely confident man could pull off in public. Set to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” it’s the first of a series of unforgettable scenes capturing Oliver as Elio sees him, a beautifully masculine and yet self-effacing ideal.
Call Me by Your Name is rife with similar instances of Guadagnino allowing the film to assume the perspectives of its young hedonists. Lustrously shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the sun-bathed days and idyllic nights of the region are picturesque, drowning every frame of the film in the kind of decadence that’s characterized Guadagnino’s prior work (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), but with a strength of purpose that he’s never fully achieved to this point. Call Me exists in a world of immense privilege, to be sure, but Guadagnino uses the idyll of a worry-free excursion as one of his many methods in capturing the kind of love and lust that makes its participants leave the world behind. The film’s vision of Italy plays with/against the common perceptions of it as a land of untamed passion, both for humor and for tone, and the gorgeous country plays as integral a role in Elio and Oliver’s story as either actor.
Though Call Me builds their relationship with the kind of teasing deliberation that movies too rarely include as a necessary (and enjoyable) facet of human sexuality, it’s inevitable that sooner or later, what was unspoken about Elio will rise to the surface. And given the purposeful ways in which Guadagnino envisions Hammer as a tanned paragon of virility, it’s not as though the film questions why Elio might have chosen this of all summers to experience a significant shift in orientation. Once they walk around a fountain together, Elio mentioning how “there’s no one I can say this to but you,” it’s clear that Elio wants Oliver, and for Oliver’s initial reluctance, he fervently wants Elio in the same way.
The screenplay (credited to James Ivory, Walter Fasano, and Guadagnino) draws their relationship out at a seductive pace, avoiding many of the expected beats of love stories, and of queer love stories at that. Elio’s parents are smart enough to pick up on the burgeoning relationship, and laughingly stay out of the way; in fairness, the world’s most unobservant individual could probably pick up on it. When they do get together, their scenes are benefited by Gudadagnino’s characteristic yen for presenting sexuality on film in all of its candor. Both love and sex are messy (in every sense) during Call Me, and Guadagnino captures both with a wistful grin. The discussions end in hurt feelings, the hookups sometimes end far too soon, and in either case it’s hardly the end of the world. Part of getting swept up in something beyond definition is that you spend less time trying to make sense of it, and more on just enjoying it along the way.
Guadagnino realizes their time together as a series of drifting conversations, and this too adds to the film’s immaculate sense of the endless summer. Call Me lingers over every aspect of human sexuality, extending well beyond the physical even as it’s the kind of arthouse film that’ll leave a great many audience members adjusting their collars. It’s drunk with the mental aspects of desire, finding the poetry and substance in their compulsive need for each other. Intelligence is virtuous and sexy in the film, and their total intimacy is what keeps Elio and Oliver chasing after one another even as other amorous parties enter the picture and that end-of-season termination date looms. They’re not just intimate in the base senses, though both enjoy those benefits as well. These are people who realize how singular this moment between them will be, for the rest of their lives.
Chalamet and Hammer are tasked with carrying the film, as there’s scarcely a shot that doesn’t include one or both of them, and both actors deliver career-defining performances. As Elio, Chalamet begins with a turn of deceptive simplicity, the consummate annoyed teenager who’s ahead of the curve and knows it. But as the film unfolds, he slowly introduces a remarkable frailty to the character, revealing Elio as the kid he still is with each passing scene and each impulsive reaction to the fixed boundaries of his life. The film often depends on Chalamet’s expressive, sorrowful gaze, and the actor exceeds every demand made of him. There is a sustained take in which he’s tasked with conveying an entire range of emotions, from grief to regret to nostalgia to pain to some kind of grudging acceptance, and Guadagnino simply lingers over the actor as he seamlessly works his way from one to the next. It’s a magnificent feat of acting, and it’s just one of a few dynamics that Chalamet is able to explore throughout the film.
As his chief scene partner, Hammer is equally laudable, playing on his chiseled looks in alternately clever and gutting ways. Of the two, Oliver has the wherewithal to recognize the infeasibility of their coupling in the long run, but it’s a measure of how terrific Hammer is in the role that this only comes through in allusive ways. He’s the kind of man who could have anybody he wants across the whole spectrum of sexuality, and Hammer slowly traces Oliver’s journey from bemusement to curiosity to longing for Elio with a skill and assurance that offers a reminder of why Hammer made so much noise for his dual turn in The Social Network. Here he finally realizes the potential of that film in the kind of turn that opens new doors for a performer.
Call Me by Your Name matches its performances with a measured approach, escalating or relaxing with each scene. When Guadagnino bathes a particularly affecting flashback in negative exposures, it’s an encapsulation of the burning distortion of breathless love. The director marks time through expressive fades, each rounding off the edges of a ticking clock in favor of something worth remembering for each small moment. Even Sufjan Stevens’ work as the film’s composer adds to the sensation of the film as an isolated, specific capsule of an unforgettable encounter in both men’s lives. Fluctuating between lush orchestrations, staccato-heavy piano refrains, and the lilting delivery of “I have loved you for the last time” in his new composition “Visions of Gideon,” Stevens has a perfect ear for the film’s portrayal of a summer that’s getting shorter by the day.
Guadagnino’s film is one of swooning sentiment, but it never once cheapens or diminishes the rich emotion of its story for extraneous impact. It finds its meaning in glistening apricots, and bodies glowing in the sunlight, and in a train pulling out of its station for good. It’s a movie romance of uncommon emotional maturity, both in its courtship and in the places the film eventually takes its young lovers. Though Elio’s parents largely offer moments of humor and relief from the aching tension between the film’s protagonists, Stuhlbarg has one formidable monologue in the film, delivered to Elio in a moment of severe need. It’s astounding in its tenderness, and serves as a phenomenal bit of punctuation to Call Me. His professor teaches Elio the most essential lesson a person can ever learn in times of strife: “Right now, there’s sorrow and pain. Don’t kill it.” For in Guadagnino’s benevolent universe, there’s no life without the sensation of having been intimate enough with someone to lament them when they’re gone.