*** out of ****
(for strong sexual content, nudity, and some strong language)
Released: November 24, 2017 limited; expands through December, and January 2018
Runtime: 132 minutes
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel
A sexy gay romance, the lush and lavish Call My By Your Name is a sophisticated tale of awakening that embraces its sexuality.
One’s experience with it will, in part, be determined by how one instinctively reacts to that premise, particularly as it becomes erotic.
Based on the novel by André Aciman, Call My By Your Name isn’t didactically liberal or agenda-driven. It’s frank, yes, at times explicit, but never heavy-handed, just honestly progressive.
Set in 1983 Northern Italy, it’s a personal story personally told, of 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the son of an American art professor. When his dad’s latest grad student research assistant, Oliver (the statuesque Armie Hammer), arrives from the States for the summer, Elio’s nascent homosexuality becomes manifest, although at first only to himself.
Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) and screenwriter James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame) ditch Elio’s internal monologue from the book; for a film it’s a crutch. Instead, with the potent vulnerability of future star Chalamet, they portray Elio’s attraction and curiosity through his eyes alone.
Sequences are smartly, shrewdly constructed, shot and edited from Elio’s POV. Guadagnino’s camera doesn’t linger knowingly on his subject or what he observes; the director simply documents the young man’s looks and glances, unnoticed by others around him.
Chalamet doesn’t play Elio repressed, nor does Guadagnino film him that way. We see that his unrequited crush on Oliver is a natural, introverted experience. Caution is taken but not out of fear or shame, only mystery. He’s probably had these feelings before but never like this.
Oliver doesn’t take a particular interest in Elio beyond cordial acquaintance (there is no clichéd “Meet Cute”), nor does he appear to send signals. Plus, they’re each pursuing their own heterosexual encounters (as they’ve clearly been used to). Elio’s even nurturing a relationship, enjoying a girl but wanting a man.
Much of the film’s first hour is Elio navigating this new territory. There’s no initial spark followed by escalating flirtations or love-tinged subtext. It’s Elio’s journey, and it’s organic. He contemplates, he subtly tests boundaries, he thinks some more.
When Elio finally does make the first move he’s taking a risk, not responding to a wink or a cue. Oliver returns the affection but is more considered, his measure expressed in casual confidence: “I know myself.”
This, however, quickly escalates – from kissing to passion to sex. Its nature is more blossoming than torrid, though there are certainly degrees of both, and occasionally Elio’s experimentation is awkward.
The most pure, intimate expression between them is the titular exchange; they call each other by their own names, in an earnest attempt to become one.
There’s also a shared Jewish heritage which also factors in to the connection, although Hammer is about the most Aryan looking Hebrew you’ll ever set your eyes on. In that, Oliver works more as an incarnation of the classical Renaissance sculptures that Elio’s dad teaches about and studies; he’s an Adonis of marble become flesh.
Oliver is only five years older than Elio, but the elephant in the premise is that Elio is 17. Given the recent upheaval in our society surrounding sexual ethics, where harder lines are being re-drawn as to what constitutes consent or abuse (and are being politically weaponized), this age difference may not sit well with even some liberal-minded viewers.
Granted, the story is set in Italy’s more sexually open culture, a country where the age of consent has been 14 for decades, and neither Elio nor Oliver is predatory. Still, the disparity lingers.
The older Oliver is self-assured, Elio is not, and it’s difficult not to sense a discrepancy of power in that dynamic, even if Oliver’s negligence is due more to blind desire than conscious manipulation. Guardagnino, for his part, may actually be acknowledging this in the powerful close-up that lingers through the closing credits.
There is no struggle, however, in Guardagnino’s craft. Luxurious yet unadorned, basking in sun-soaked rural Italy that’s set to a classical-minimalist piano score, with two Sufjan Stevens songs to punctuate the bittersweet, Luca’s aesthetic is insouciantly elegant. Regardless of its debatable aspects within our current cultural climate, Call Me By Your Name‘s classy simplicity cannot be denied.