I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
If you don’t want to run away to the Italian countryside after Call Me by Your Name, and eat fruit right off the tree, and bask in the summer sun, and fall in love, I have nothing to say to you. This is a movie about falling in love with life itself, about living with gusto and embracing all the sensuality that being alive in a human body has to offer. This is a movie about how eating delicious food and swimming on a hot day and listening to the crickets hum and touching another person and making music and dancing and reading books and feeling all the feels are essential human behaviors, and preferably more than one at the same time if at all possible. Maybe some of these things are lacking in your life, and Call Me will inspire you to find them for yourself. Maybe your life is already happily full of all these things, and Call Me will remind you of that bittersweet moment in your youth when you finally learned no one ever promised that making all of this happen would be easy. But as long as you are human, there is something here for you. Maybe we will show this movie to aliens someday as a way to illustrate what all the best stuff about being a human is.
You’ve probably heard that this is “the gay romance,” but that’s far too reductive and limiting a term for this glorious film. I don’t mean to diminish the fact that this is a gay romance, of which there have been far too few in the mainstream movie environment, and perhaps none this perfect. It’s glorious, too, that there’s nothing political about this story: no one is fighting for his rights as a citizen or a person; no one is agonizing over coming out or being punished for doing so; there’s no specter of AIDS hanging over anyone. And again, I don’t mean to diminish stories that are about those things, because they’re important and need to be told. But this sort of gay romance has needed to be told as well, one that’s just about attraction and desire and friendship and acceptance that isn’t merely unquestioned but almost unquestionable (you know, like the romances that straight people get to have, onscreen and in real life). There’s only one tiny hint that any of this is taking place somewhere and somewhen — conservative Catholic rural Italy in 1983 — that might have issues with the central relationship, and it’s something mentioned only in passing, and quite late in the story. That’s how it feels, after all, when you deviate from the norm: you’re just you, all the time, and how you think and feel is your normal, and then once in a while you get a reminder from the outside world that you don’t quite fit in.
So here is 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet: Lady Bird, Love the Coopers), summering in Crema in northern Italy with his American father (Michael Stuhlbarg: The Post, Miss Sloane), a professor of antiquities, and his Italian mother (Amira Casar), a translator. Mom inherited this magnificent rambling villa with all the balconies and the doors everywhere thrown open in the hot still air, and you will want to stay here when you visit Crema. (You can feel the stillness and the heat in cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s sultry photography, and you can practically smell the grass in the meadows.) They have servants, too, like all academics can afford; actually, perhaps this is the alternate-universe fantasy it sometimes feels like. Dad’s got an intern coming to help with his work for the summer, who breezes in as the film opens. Breezy is a good word to describe 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer: Cars 3, Free Fire). He is a force of nature, embracing everything about life in Crema and with the Perlmans: the juicy apricots from their orchard, the languid days in the sun, the casual intellectualism of this family of thinkers. The girls in the village all fall instantly in love with Oliver (and he appreciates them as well), because who could resist him? He is full of life, and Hammer is a golden god. Oliver is a young man bursting with easy confidence and with seemingly few inhibitions; Hammer is so comfortable and relaxed that he hardly seems to be performing at all.
As Elio, Chalamet has the much more difficult role, for he has to navigate a teenager’s wild mood swings and petulant self-consciousness while still keeping Elio not only sympathetic but heroically so. For Elio is meant to be all of us at that age, embodying a gawky awkwardness that we can look back on with melancholy and endearment; god, were we really ever so young and fragile?! And Chalamet pulls it off beautifully. (The actor is older than the character; he’s closer to Oliver’s age, and Hammer is 31. They’re both presumaby wiser and more self-aware than the younger men they are playing, and that shows in their work here.) Elio is intellectually sophisticated for his age, making jokes about different ways to play Bach and finding sentimental resonance in medieval poetry, but he is immature in the usual ways, too. Every emotion is extreme, every moment melodramatic: He hates the arrogant Oliver! No, he loves the beautiful Oliver! Oh, he cannot live without the amazing Oliver! And it’s all utterly charming and heartbreaking at the same time. The scene in which Elio confronts his own sexuality — not as gay or straight or any other label but simply as a person with a sexuality all his own, not a reaction to or gift for other people — is an extraordinary bit of passionate acting, shame and wonder all mixed up on Chalamet’s face.
Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) lets everything flow with the indolence of a scorching summer; even the strong emotions coursing through the film are more smoldering than blazing. They are perfect for the moments of quiet intensity that screenwriter James Ivory (Le Divorce) mines from the novel by André Aciman, such as That One Scene for which everyone is rightly deciding that Michael Stuhlbarg is their new dad, as he passes on words of wisdom to Elio at the end of the film. It’s one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen onscreen, for its simplicity and its honesty and its humanity.
Maybe the most astonishing thing about Call Me by Your Name is how what seems complicated here at first — such as Elio’s mixed up emotions about everything — is really very uncomplicated. Everything is simple and natural here: Doesn’t everyone’s lazy summer involve bringing up ancient statuary from sunken ships in the lake? Who doesn’t like an extended practical joke about etymology? Isn’t everyone casually fluid sexually? (Elio has a girlfriend, Marzia [Esther Garrel], though she cannot hold a candle to Oliver in Elio’s eyes, the poor girl.) Shouldn’t every day be as full of sensuality as Elio’s summer with Oliver is?
first viewed during the 61st BFI London Film Festival