The pleasures of art, music, food, natural beauty and sexual awakening are evoked and celebrated in “Call Me by Your Name,” an almost sinfully enjoyable movie that both observes and obeys the languid rhythms of a torrid Italian summer.
Set in the early 1980s, Luca Guadanigno’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel barely counts as a period piece, although the short shorts and tube socks Armie Hammer wears to play his smart-jock protagonist put the story squarely in the past. Still, the themes of longing, desire and self-definition are nothing if not timeless. Here, a young man’s coming-of-age is given such tactile, emotionally resonant immediacy that it would be recognizable in any country, of any era.
The young man in question is Elio (Timothee Chalamet), the 17-year-old son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has hired an American student named Oliver (Hammer) to be his assistant for the summer. As a typically self-absorbed teenager, Elio at first seems barely aware of Oliver’s presence, being far more interested in his on-and-off girlfriend, reading and pursuing compositional musings on the guitar and piano.
For his part, Oliver embodies a purely American brand of unbridled appetite and unselfconscious confidence that strikes an immediate awkward note within Elio’s casually cosmopolitan family. Soon, though, the household reaches its own pleasant rhythm, with the two young men – about seven years apart in age – gravitating toward one another as friends and, eventually, more.
Before readers look up the Italian word for “problematic,” let it be noted that it is Elio, not Oliver, who is the pursuer in “Call Me By Your Name,” which was written for the screen by James Ivory. Balancing the objectification of its leading men with discretion and delicacy, this is a film that acknowledges the purity and sculptural beauty of youth – Greek aesthetics, philosophy and ideals of male friendship are invoked early and often – but never at the expense of a character who, on the cusp of manhood, possesses his own agency and desires, despite their sometimes shaky parameters.
Portrayed with a note-perfect combination of cocky self-assurance and wary naiveti by Chalamet, Elio is something of an extension of the actor’s hilariously pretentious character in the recent film “Lady Bird” – another teenager with pedantic ideas about his own depth and seriousness. But while Ivory and Guadanigno aren’t afraid to wink at Elio’s youthful lack of self-awareness, they never stoop to ridiculing it: Like Oliver, whose own seeming shallowness masks a surprisingly observant, compassionate nature, they’re patient and indulgent with a stage of life that can seem laughable, enviable and excruciatingly painful all at the same time.
The plot of “Call Me By Your Name” isn’t particularly novel. Its contours are familiar to anyone who can remember their own sentimental education, or that of their favorite literary hero. What sets his movie apart are the flavors, feelings and fleeting glimpses of attraction that find as much erotic tension in a volleyball game or alfresco lunch as in sparring over a Bach cantata. The villa where much of “Call Me by Your Name” transpires, with its lush fruit orchards and burnished, offhanded refinement, feels less like a stage set than a summer home seen through a particularly revealing (but circumspect) keyhole.
Anyone who has seen Guadanigno’s previous films, including “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” understands his gift for creating environments, often drenched in extravagant colors and textures; his staging and pacing are just as sensuously seductive, drawing viewers into a world that seems simultaneously realistic and dreamlike in its detail and pictorial richness.
“Call Me By Your Name” finds the director marshaling those gifts in service to a spellbinding, almost ecstatically beautiful movie that gains even more heft and meaning in its final transcendent moments. What had been a two-hander featuring sensitive, flawlessly judged performances by Chalamet and Hammer expands into something more, and the audience realizes that the entire film could be interpreted as an elegant exercise in misdirection.
“Call Me By Your Name” may exemplify well-tempered cinema at its most balanced and attractive, but it’s far more than just a pretty face.
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