Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is about the exquisite agony of first love. Our hero is 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who is spending the summer at his parents’ vacation home in Northern Italy. Elio is exceptionally bright: He plays piano and guitar and transcribes Schoenberg scores for fun; he’s an avid reader; he speaks fluent French and Italian (along with his native English). Elio is very close to both of his parents—his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a scholar, specializing in ancient Greek and Roman sculpture; his mother (Amira Casar) reads German translations of 16th century French literature in her spare time—and he is clearly used to hanging out with their intellectual friends, impressing everyone with his precociousness. One gets the sense that, in the past, Elio was happy to live a life of the mind, with occasional breaks to go swimming or dancing with his friends.
All of that changes the summer of 1983, when 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) comes to stay with the family. Oliver is bookish like Elio, but also a strapping, sun-kissed hunk of a man and Elio is immediately taken with him. Something about Oliver’s breezy, American manners (his catchphrase is “Later!” which he dispatches at unexpected moments when he wants to take leave) and, in particular, his unshakable self-possession beguiles Elio, both attracting and frustrating him. The two young men—one still really a boy—begin a kind of game of cat and mouse, insulting each other, then making up, then insulting each other again. All of this, of course, is because Elio is afraid of allowing himself to be vulnerable in front of Oliver, of sharing how he really feels. Call Me By Your Name is insightful about how we sometimes lash out at the people we’re attracted to, especially if we assume it’s unrequited. We’re resentful of the power they have over us.
Eventually Elio and Oliver take the first steps toward becoming lovers—first horseplay, then breathless confessions, forbidden touches—but still, the games continue. Oliver disappears for a night, Elio responds by losing his virginity to a friend (Esther Garrel), who is in love with him. (Somewhere, there’s a whole other film about Garrel’s Marzia, and the summer she fell for a romantic, dreamy boy who spurned her). Later, after they’ve consummated their feelings, Oliver dances with a pretty girl in a courtyard, as Elio glowers (and vomits—he’s drunk). Games, shifting power dynamics, an endless push-pull—all of this is built into the fabric of their relationship; it fuels their desire. For Elio the feelings are love—obsessive, painful, ecstatic first love. For Oliver? It’s a little less clear. He certainly is very taken with Elio, but his feelings are more complicated—he knows it can never last, so there’s something wistful, almost preemptively nostalgic in the relationship for him.
Guadagnino, who also directed I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, is a master sensualist, almost to an absurd degree. Elio’s family is staying on a property studded with fruit trees—apricots and peaches—and people are constantly biting into (and doing, uh, other things to) the lush, juicy fruit. Yes, there are also runny, soft-boiled eggs, aplenty. And yet, as he did so well in A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino draws us into this bourgeois-bohemian life: the lazy days spent reading and playing music, sunbathing by the lake, eating al fresco at sturdy stone tables, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes (so many cigarettes). As I watched the film, I’m not sure what I was longing for more: A heady romance like the kind shared by Elio and Oliver; or a shabby chic summer house in the Italian countryside. (Spoiler alert: It’s the vacation house.)
The performances are all lovely—Stuhlbarg empathically delivers the film’s climactic monologue, where he tells his son to lean into his emotions, even the messy stuff; Hammer is the very model of aspirational masculinity and American bonhomie—but Chalamet is the real revelation here. He’s the most exciting young actor since Leonardo DiCaprio. The film’s final scene, just a single take trained on Chalamet’s face as he absorbs some unsettling news, is extraordinary; it would almost be a virtuoso actor’s gimmick if it weren’t so affecting. But honestly, he’s great all throughout—bringing all of Elio’s smarts, longing, self-loathing, and goofiness to life.
Call Me By Your Name was written by James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame) and it seems that his delicate command of repressed desire blends beautifully with Guadagnino’s more flesh-filled pursuits. Despite all its pain, love is always worth it, the film argues—and makes you believe.