Sony Pictures Classics
Desire is one of the most private things we experience as human beings. No one ever truly knows someone else’s heart, even when theirs collides with our own, but the attempt to do so is often what defines who we are.
James Ivory’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel Call Me by Your Name details the relationship between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the much older Oliver (Armie Hammer) over the course of one summer in Italy in 1983, and it is a delicate, shimmering memory piece, full of specific, sensual detail. That seems to be the specialty of director Luca Guadagnino, and it’s clear that he is shifting gears into a more robust command of his artistic powers these days. He’s an exciting filmmaker, but he’s not chasing anyone else or following any trends. His films don’t unfold at the same rhythm as anyone else’s, and they’re designed more as these plunges into a tactile world than as conventional drama.
Oliver works for Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and he’s in Italy to help with some research. The Perlmans own this beautiful home they use for the summers and for Christmas, and from the moment Oliver arrives, it’s clear he is flattened by the beauty of the house, the land, the food. He delights in it. He can’t help himself. Whether it’s riding a bike or taking a walk or simply sitting outside under the stars, he soaks up the time and the place, quietly hungry for all of it. From the moment Oliver arrives, Elio circles him, aware of him, but almost afraid to look directly at him. Elio’s got that aimlessly horny radar that so many teenagers have, and he’s tangled up with Marzia (Esther Garrel), a French girl whose parents also have a summer home in the area. There’s an aimless, blissful lack of responsibility for Elio, and the film does a beautiful job of dropping us into that feeling. Guadagnino did it so well in I Am Love in 2009, and he did it very well a couple of years ago in A Bigger Splash. It feels like you’re really there, soaking it up right alongside them, and it’s incredibly difficult to pull off. There’s an incredible amount of work that goes into making something look and feel this spontaneous and organic.
Armie Hammer is having a good year, and it’s about time. His breakthrough moment in The Social Network was amazing, and he’s spent the seven years since then working as hard as he could in a series of movies that seemed to have very little idea what to do with him. Clint Eastwood buried him under weird old-age make-up in J. Edgar; he struggled to survive the screwball stylization of Mirror, Mirror; and while there are things to like about The Lone Ranger, it was viewed as a massive bomb, and it was hung largely around Hammer’s neck since his co-star, Johnny Depp, was such a proven star. I was a fan of the weird and shaggy The Man from UNCLE, but the general audience missed it completely when it first came out. Over the last year or so, though, he’s hit a stride where it’s clear he’s not making commercial choices at all. Nocturnal Animals. Free Fire. And now Call Me by Your Name. These are roles where we’re finally starting to see a range and a confidence in Hammer that more than fulfills that earlier promise.
Hammer is the engine that drives this film. His emotional weather has a huge impact on Elio, and the first half-hour or so is a collection of moments where Elio has no idea how to read him. The age difference between the two of them is key, because it gives Oliver a wealth of experience that Elio doesn’t have, and it also creates a barrier that gives Oliver real pause. Elio is young, and he makes young decisions, and Oliver is in town to work for his father. He has some very real and very important hesitations. But, oh, desire… desire is not about reason or what is best or what makes sense. Desire is something chemical, something that pushes us, and watching Oliver slowly make sense of what that desire is telling him to do is something the film only lets us do from Elio’s point of view. Elio is convinced there’s something wrong with him, and when Oliver does finally make the choice to open up to real intimacy with the younger man, it is important. Oliver gives Elio a guide to his feelings, and he helps him somehow get his head and his heart around the desire that has suddenly gripped him so tightly.
Timothée Chalamet is also having a moment right now, between this film and Greta Gerwig’s terrific Lady Bird. In that film, he plays a character who projects a world-weary knowledge that may be a front for the natural insecurity and inexperience that is part of adolescence. Here, he’s got this incredible vulnerability, and much of what Elio deals with in the film is trying to learn how to be a sexual being without doing harm to anyone. Even as he struggles with his feelings about Oliver, he’s exploring a sort of fumbling, frantic, innocent sex with Marzia, and she’s careful to ask him early to be careful and not hurt her emotionally. Elio is so focused on Oliver as an object of desire that he doesn’t realize how important his attentions are to Marzia, and it’s only once she starts to feel that hurt of rejection that it seems to sink in for him.
Over the course of my lifetime as a film fan, the landscape has changed dramatically for actors in terms of what they can or can’t play. Think of how long we’ve been told that no one who played gay could ever really carry big action movies or play a straight romantic comedy lead. I suspect those days are done, and young actors like Chalamet or Ezra Miller (whose work in The
Perks of Being a Wallflower is just brilliant) are going to be able to play whatever they want without endangering future opportunities. In fact, it’s kind of amazing to realize that shift is currently under way. There’s a casual bravery to Chalamet’s generation, and there’s nothing self-conscious or calculated about his work here.
James Ivory is better known as a director than as a writer, but the films he did write are intriguing. His adaptation of A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries is deeply underrated, and his screenplay for Maurice is a significant work in ‘80s queer cinema. They’re both very internal screenplays, and the films he directed, the large majority of which were scripted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, are all cut from that same cloth — literary adaptations in which the smallest gestures speak volumes. That’s exactly the kind of film Call Me by Your Name is, and it feels like an extension of the kind of work Ivory did, charged with a very different kind of energy by Guadagnino. Ivory’s films are usually about the ways people deny the desires that define them, while Guadagnino seems more interested by what happens when we surrender to them. It makes for a terrific collaboration, the two sensibilities combining into something that has an energy all its own.
When Guadagnino was still in post-production on A Bigger Splash, I remember hearing how the entire cast had decided it was the best experience of their lives, and one of the reasons he ultimately decided to direct the Suspiria remake (he’d planned to simply produce it for a while) was because he wanted to bring the cast back together so they could continue to spend time together. Hammer has talked about how Call Me by Your Name is the best experience he’s ever had, and he found himself falling in love with his director, heartbroken when the production ended. The entire cast seems to be in tune here, and Michael Stuhlbarg continues his terrific year (seriously… he’s great in The Shape of Water, he crushed it on FX’s Fargo, and he makes a memorable appearance in Spielberg’s The Post as well) with a truly beautiful performance. There have been some great movie dads this year (I can’t get Tracy Letts in Lady Bird out of my head), but Stuhlbarg brings a special empathy to this role. There’s a scene of his near the end of the film that snuck up on me and left me completely flattened. It’s remarkable work, and the same is true of Esther Garrel’s intuitive work as Marzia. She could easily just be “the girl,” but she makes a strong, honest impression.
One of the stars of the film is cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and seeing his work here, I’m positively rabid to see what he’s done with Suspiria. Just because you go shoot somewhere as beautiful as Northern Italy doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to end up with a beautiful film, and beautiful isn’t always the way you define great cinematography. What works here is the way he captures a time and place and the way it feels, and while it looks lush and gorgeous at times, he never oversells it, and it never feels like he’s just shooting a travelogue. It is a film to soak in, to get lost in, and the way production designer Samuel Deshors and art director Roberta Federico and set decorators Muriel Chinal, Sandro Piccarozzi, and Violante Visconti di Modrone and costumer Giulia Piersanti all work together to make the world feel authentic is important, because it makes it feel less like a movie and more like a memory.
Call Me by Your Name is a film that feels like it will be fiercely important to some viewers who recognize their own experience in it, and I get that. It’s a lovely film, well worth seeing, and it lingers long after it ends. Part of that is because of the film’s amazing final shot, an emotional crescendo delivered with a feather touch, and part of that is because the film never quite leans into it, trying for easy sentiment. Instead, it is emotionally mature enough to give us room for our own reactions, and that’s always going to have a longer-lasting power. This may not be everyone’s love story, but anyone should be able to recognize the role that desire has played in their own lives, and the delicious, dangerous thrill of letting it take control.
Running time: 132 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic