Call Me By Your Name is a film that sneaks up on you. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, written by James Ivory, and adapted from the novel of the same name by André Aciman, it tells a familiar tale of an endless summer than ends too quickly and a teenage boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), falling for and connecting deeply with another person for the first time.
Set in 1983, it’s ostensibly a period piece, but before long you forget that because every moment feels so timeless. The beauty of its rustic setting is rivaled only by the beauty of love in every form but especially in the form of Oliver, played by real life Disney prince Armie Hammer.
It’s not necessarily a new story — Elio falling in love with Oliver, his father’s American graduate student, over the six-week period of Oliver’s stay with his family in their idyllic Italian villa — but does that even matter? All stories are old stories, and there’s something mythic about this one in particular.
Shades of Apollo and Hyacinthus color Oliver and Elio’s relationship: Oliver, cautious and knowledgeable, tests the waters so gently at first that Elio misses his signals while Elio, bold but still learning, cannot help but clumsily push past boundaries with a teenager’s all-or-nothing self-destructiveness. His desire to impress Oliver is reckless and aggressive, if only because he knows no other way of getting a god’s attention. When Oliver finally tells him in a note, simply and fondly, to grow up, it is not meant as an admonishment so much as a reassurance. Elio always had Oliver’s attention. But Oliver, unlike Elio, is old enough and human enough, not a god at all, to know that such attentions have consequences.
Thankfully, Call Me By Your Name is not a story of those consequences. Those stories are historically important in film, but for once, it’s nice to simply watch a movie about a romance between two bisexual men where the most tragic thing to happen is that their relationship has an inescapable end-date from the very beginning. They only have six weeks, and they spend maybe two of those weeks fully and completely together. Towards the end, Elio says, “We wasted so many days,” a teenager’s short-sighted lament for closeness and pleasures they could have had. It’s only later that he understands that it was those wasted days that made the full ones so special.
Oliver knows this from the beginning. He’s only a few years older than Elio, but that gap is just enough to give him the blessing and curse of foresight. He knows from the first time he touches Elio that anything that happens between them will not last, and he mourns their inevitable separation every moment they’re together. But for his sake and for Elio’s, he makes the most of the rarity they’ve found together and, for a time, lives without fear.
There’s just something so lovely about a story like this, and Guadagnino has a keen eye for filming it. Call Me By Your Name is never twee or tense; Guadagnino takes his time, lets his actors breathe, and lets his audience feel the very tangible distance between them and the relief when that distance evaporates. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, editor Walter Fasano and composer Sufjan Stevens also deserve high praise for cultivating the lived-in (and, again, timeless) atmosphere of Guadagnino’s film. They clearly, if quietly, elevate the film to something of a masterpiece.
And that masterpiece would be nothing without its superb performances. Chalamet perfectly evokes the mindset and mannerisms of an intelligent boy who is still learning, always learning, and who still doesn’t quite know what it means to grow up. Hammer is better than he’s ever been, showing true depth beneath an exterior that mirrors the impossibly beautiful and ancient statues that Oliver has come to study in Italy. But the true gem of the film is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father. It’s better to experience his performance for yourself, so I won’t say much more about it except that in one pivotal scene toward the end, he utters four words that very suddenly and unexpectedly reduced me to tears. Despite his excellent work this year, Stuhlbarg seems to be an underdog on the award circuit, which is such a pity. Those four words alone deserve a few statues.
Call Me By Your Name (finally) opens at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema this weekend. It’s that time of year where prestige films come and go quickly, and this is not one to miss. Every frame has that quality of an old photo in an album one of your parents put together when they were young and when things like that mattered. The photo looks a little hazy and yellow to you, but to your parent, it remains as clear and vibrant as the day it was taken. You can see that as they smile, small and sad, as they remember, and you wish you could remember, too. That feeling is a difficult one to capture in film. This weekend, you know where to find it.