Luca Guadagnino’s romantic drama Call Me by Your Name sneaks up on you — by the end, it stings with the lingering ache of a late-summer sunburn. Adapted by James Ivory from Andre Aciman’s acclaimed novel, the story follows 17-year-old somewhat introverted musician Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and 24-year-old doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer) through a long, frustrated summer of latent desire and thwarted courtship, culminating in a fervid if ephemeral affair. Guadagnino adeptly captures not just physicality of a burning love but also the emotional and intellectual components, and the film is all the more salient for that careful, realistic interpretation.
It’s the 1980s. Elio and his family reside in a palatial but rustic Italian villa in the northern countryside, where peaches and other succulent fruits dangle just within reach from the trees shading the family’s land. When Elio’s father’s new summer research assistant Oliver arrives, the sleepy house suddenly takes on new life. Oliver is confident, curious and forward. His second day in the house, he readily corrects his professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) on the taxonomic origins of the word “apricot.” Elio, who slinks in and out of rooms to study the houseguest, at first takes offense at the new student’s “arrogant” goodbyes (a casual “Later”) and then to his lingering hand on Elio’s bare back. But it’s really Elio’s burgeoning feelings for Oliver that allow these niggling annoyances to get at him.
In the meantime, both Elio and Oliver have a dalliance with the local women. Elio peels his eyes from Oliver long enough to set them on Marzia (Esther Garrel), a charming French beauty happy to entertain the easily distracted Elio. At their first illicit little encounter, Elio finishes too quickly and then profusely apologizes as Marzia giggles. Soon, they’re both giggling, as Elio, in French, proclaims, “That felt so good!” In Guadagnino’s version of summer love, there is no shame, just pleasure and earnestness.
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When Elio finally tells Oliver he’s attracted to him, the scene is grandly romantic, like a queer Casablanca or Last Year at Marienbad. The two men gaze at the statue of an Italian WWI soldier, trying to ignore the tension in the air. Elio finally says, “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” He walks as he speaks around the perimeter of the statue. Oliver, hopeful, begins pacing on its other side. He calls, “Why are you telling me this?” Elio’s reply: “Because I wanted you to know.” He says it again and again — as a declaration, as a whisper — until the two meet on the far side of the statue and look at one another with clear eyes, changed. But the two still fight their feelings for a bit longer. Days later, Elio and Marzia sneak away to a storage room with a mattress and explore one another’s bodies with joyous innocence. Elio and his family speak multiple languages, often within the same conversation or even sentence, and the young man’s sexuality is as fluid as the alternating languages he speaks. During his time with Marzia, he continually looks at his watch, anticipating the time (midnight) he’s supposed to meet with Oliver.
When the men are together, endlessly teasing one another, the story sings and surprises. In one scene, Elio lays on the mattress in the storage shed and masturbates into a hollowed-out peach. “Oh no,” he groans, resigned to the strange and impetuous act his hormones have urged. Most movies would depict this as a shock, or a low point; here, the moment comes off as adorable. Elio falls asleep, and gets awoken by kisses to the belly — and below — from Oliver, who lifts his head to grin and ask, “What did you do?” presumably having tasted the peach juice on Elio’s body. The scene is sweet and funny but also illuminating. Elio unexpectedly becomes emotional in the moment when he lets in the knowledge that the clock is ticking down on their last days together in this blissful summer, where for a fleeting moment to be gay and in love seems safe and OK. The characters may not always voice those thoughts, but they’re in the background of every kiss and embrace.
Chalamet is magnetic and unpredictable as Elio. Even when Elio is simply listening, he’s fascinating to watch. In 20 seconds of screen time, Chalamet can go from a full, arced-back slouch to a self-assured, alertness and then to an arrogantly flirtatious lean, telling the fraught inner story of this character with only a few gestures. It’s thrilling to watch this film and realize that the 21-year-old actor will be in many others. I’m looking forward to the era of the Chalamet leading man.
Guadagnino doesn’t beat us over the head with the danger of these two young men’s desires, unlike, say, his film I Am Love, where we are constantly reminded that a woman’s passions could overwhelm and destroy her at any second. Call Me by Your Name is instead, daringly, often fun, capturing the kinetic back-and-forth dialogue of two very intelligent people whose brains are synching along with their bodies, something I too rarely see in heteronormative stories, let alone queer ones. Some filmmakers seem to think a few close-ups on two characters locking eyes is enough to signify the seeds of enduring love — no, that’s just lust. Here, Guadagnino shows us the radiance of young love and how great it is to feel those rays shine on you, no matter how tender and raw you may be when the sun disappears.