Call Me by Your Name is an extraordinarily beautiful story of sexual awakening set in a luscious Italian summer. The film is gorgeous and magnificently well-acted, but flawed.
Each year, the family of 16-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends the summer in a villa in Northern Italy. Elio’s father is an American professor of ancient Greek and Roman culture, and each summer he invites a different grad student to live in their villa and work on scholarly pursuits. In this summer of 1981, that lucky grad student is the 26-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio is attracted to Oliver, who is a closeted gay man. Oliver is attracted to Elio, but initially resists Elio’s overtures. What follows between the two of them is an enthralling and authentic exploration of first love.
Timothée Chalamet is really perfect as Elio, a musical prodigy who is beating off the girls with a stick. Even really handsome and talented 17-year-olds have some awkwardness, especially while they’re trying too hard to be cool. Chamalet captures that perfectly, along with the obsessive longing of a first romance. (Chalamet is also in Lady Bird, where he plays the dreamy kid who plays in a band, the object of Lady Bird’s desire.) Armie Hammer is also superb as the more worldly Oliver, whose external confidence masks inner conflicts.
The story of the two main characters would have made a perfect film, but famed screenwriter James Ivory adds some distracting implausibility with the other characters. First, there are Elio’s impossibly cool and understanding parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) who practically push their teen son into the arms of an older man; nobody has parents like that, especially TWO of them. (And, yes, I did understand the dad’s motivation, made almost explicit in his final monologue). Second, Elio hurts the feelings of a girl (in a way that almost every male has hurt some girl). Later, she forgives him and it’s all made to be okay. This is just too convenient for Elio, and I didn’t buy it.
And then there’s one of my own movie pet peeves. I generally despise musical interludes in movies, when the dialogue is suspended and a song is played over a montage of imagery. This usually indicates a lack of imagination in the story-telling. A movie gets negative bonus points from me when the music is an insipid pop ballad. In Call Me by Your Name, there are two such Euro-pop interludes.
On the other hand, the depiction of the Italian countryside, with its rustling breezes, orchards heavy with fruit, ancient buildings and is pure travel porn. I think that The Wife would have walked out of Call Me by Your Name – not because she wouldn’t have liked it – but to make reservations for a return to Tuscany. Director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) has a gift for making his native Italy unbearably attractive on the screen. Between the work of Guadagnino and Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), Italy has been well-celebrated in recent films.
Call Me By Your Name is a very good movie, and the core story of Elio and Oliver is great cinema.