Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful, tender and emotionally powerful film about the relationship between two men who feel unable to be themselves, except when they are with each other. It is smart, sympathetic and lyrical. In short, it is an incredible film.
The story takes place in Northern Italy during the summer of 1983. Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American scholar in his mid-20s, has been invited by Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg, who was also recently in Oscar hopefuls The Shape of Water and The Post, as well as the latest season of FX’s Fargo) to spend the summer studying with him as his research assistant while living with him, his wife, Annella (Amira Casar) and their seventeen year old son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet, who had a breakout 2017 between this, Lady Bird and Hostiles). Elio is intrigued by the handsome American, Oliver. They slowly develop a friendship and, eventually, something much deeper.
Call Me By Your Name, based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman, is a movie that tells three different stories through its single narrative. One is the exploding sexuality of young Elio and his attraction to Oliver. The second is the struggle of being a Jew in a part of the country with a very small Jewish population. The third is about Northern Italy itself, with a focus on its gorgeous landscape. All three of these things inform the true subject of the film: Elio’s coming of age as he develops a truer understanding of himself, his family and the world.
When Oliver first arrives, Elio keeps his distance. He is afraid of his feelings for Oliver and, especially, how others would react to them. Oliver seems to be trying to strike up a friendship with Elio, but Elio is aloof in return. Eventually, there is a connection between them that they cannot ignore. But the possibility that someone could find out that theirs is more than just a normal friendship is constantly hanging over them. Elio even toys with a relationship with the friendly Marzia (Esther Garrel) and sort of pushes Oliver toward Chiara (Victoire Du Bois). Elio kind of pursues Marzia for a short time, but that is just him doing what he thinks he is supposed to do. The real attraction is always between Elio and Oliver.
Fear of exposure keeps them apart from each other at first. The film, brilliantly and sympathetically adapted by James Ivory (a three-time Best Director Oscar nominee, this is his first screenwriting credit in fourteen years), acknowledges this while never making its story about it. This is not a melodrama. It is about how Oliver’s arrival changes things for Elio. It is about how they see each other, not how the outside world sees their relationship. Their issues are internal, which makes their relationship more dramatic, and more romantic, than if they had to deal with homophobia.
One of the more interesting and subtle aspects of Call Me By Your Name is the way it deals with the Judaism of its characters. Elio and his family are Jewish and so is Oliver. According to Elio, besides them, there are no other Jews in the town. Oliver freely wears a Jewish star all throughout the film. There is a moment when Elio compliments him on it and says he has one, but does not wear it because “My mother says we are Jews of discretion.” They practice the religion, but do not flaunt their beliefs. They are not exactly hiding the fact that they are Jewish, but they do keep it to themselves.
The way the film handles religion is similar to the way it handles homosexuality. The difference is that they are not exactly afraid of people finding out they are Jewish. It is more that they are trying to avoid trouble. In both cases, secrecy is stopping Elio from being who he truly is. The Jewish themes of the film are slightly below the surface, but they perfectly connect with the main story in an intriguing and thought-provoking way.
The film also explores what it was like for them to spend a summer in that place at that time. The scenery (filmed by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) is stunning and really enhances the feeling of this time period as a lovely memory for the two main characters. Most of Call Me By Your Name takes place outside, with several scenes of the characters riding their bikes to town. It really takes advantage of its location (the film was shot on location in Italy). It may seem like a minor thing, but the strong sense of place adds a lot to the feel of the film. It makes everything more believable and increased my ability as a viewer to get completely absorbed in the story.
This is the fifth feature-length fiction film by director Luca Guadagnino and the first I have seen. He has taken Ivory’s poetic adaptation and used it to create an absolutely beautiful movie. From the scenery to the handling of the themes, story and characters, he does not step wrong. He allows the story to unfold at its own pace. At about 131 minutes, it feels exactly as long as it needs to be. Some films from 2017 were directed with more style, visual beauty and, arguably, ambition than Call Me By Your Name. But I am not sure there was a film whose direction was more perfectly suited to its story.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the performances, which really elevate an already great film to something special. Armie Hammer as the confident Oliver brings an air of slight mystery to the role. Does he know how Elio feels about him? And, if so, how does he feel about it? He is kind, but careful and easily frustrated by Elio. Hammer always finds the right note so that he never comes off as cruel.
The always reliable Michael Stuhlbarg brings a lot of charm to an important supporting role. As Elio’s father, he seems to be preoccupied with his work, but may be more aware of his son’s struggles than he lets on. He has a speech late in the film that brings many of the story’s themes to the forefront and he delivers it with the perfect amount of emotion. He only gets one big moment and makes the most of it. That scene alone makes Stuhlbarg worthy of award consideration.
Timothée Chalamet is the star of the film and he is fantastic as Elio. I had never heard of him before 2017, but he has definitely made a name for himself with three very different performances in three very good films. This is undoubtedly his best performance so far. He is in, if not every scene, then nearly every scene. He makes Elio lovable and exasperating at the same time. He has the most complex role in the film because Elio’s anxieties are played out largely without dialogue. He is afraid of his feelings, so he generally does not verbalize them. That can be difficult for any actor, let alone a young one (Chalamet is only twenty-two). He has no trouble using his body language to show what Elio is going through.
The final shot, which goes over the end credits and is about three minutes long, is a close-up of his face. It is the perfect way for the film to end and shows the confidence Guadagnino had in his young star. He obviously had faith that Chalamet could pull off a challenging and important shot where his emotions are completely exposed. And he was absolutely correct.
Call Me By Your Name was nominated for three Golden Globes (the film, Chalamet and Hammer) and probably has some well-deserved Oscar nominations in its near future. It is truly a wonderful film that treats its subject matter with great care and respect. Though it is about a homosexual relationship, this is not a “gay movie.” It is a coming of age story that is relatable regardless of gender, race, sexuality or religious beliefs. Guadagnino has made a moving film that may very well be the best movie of 2017.
5 out of 5
Timothée Chalamet as Elio
Armie Hammer as Oliver
Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman
Amira Casar as Annella
Esther Garrel as Marzia
Victoire Du Bois as Chiara
Vanda Capriolo as Mafalda
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay by James Ivory