American writer Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel “Call Me by Your Name” tells the story of a summer romance between a 17-year-old Italian boy and his family’s 24-year-old visitor. Now Italian director Luca Guadagnino has brought this story to life in his new film of the same (unmemorable) name. Adapted for the big screen by writer James Ivory, “Call Me By Your Name” feels like a European film, in that the romance (both homosexual and heterosexual) is passionate. We feel the love rather than experience the sex, as in so many American pictures. (Yes, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I’m talking about you.)
The lead character Elio, a music prodigy, is played confidently by Timothee Chalamet (Saoirse Ronan’s “bad” boyfriend in “Lady Bird”). The versatile Michael Stuhlbarg is Elio’s college professor father, who has a routine of inviting a fellow archeology prof to his home each summer to relax, research, and compare notes. As “Call Me by Your Name” opens, Elio’s family welcomes Oliver from America, played by good-looking Armie Hammer. At first envious of Oliver’s swagger, athletic ability, and dance floor competency with the local girls, Elio begins to spend “alone” time with Oliver.
The two swim, bicycle, and run errands together, all the while admiring one another’s intelligence and bodies. While Oliver doesn’t become attached to any one girl, Elio strikes up a relationship with Marzia (Esther Garrel), a classmate of his sister’s. While Elio and Marzia experiment sexually, Elio is clearly more interested in (actually, fascinated with) Oliver. The two young men eventually act on their mutual desire, leaving Marzia confused, and (we think) Elio’s parents in the dark.
Deep love can be felt
Now before you reject “Call Me by Your Name” as a “gay” movie, remember that as an Italian director, Guadagnino has infused each scene with a sense of affection and desire we rarely feel in the movies. Not only is Elio’s affair with Oliver treated with utmost respect and admiration, his tryst with Marzia is deeper than those of almost any teen film I can recall. There’s real ardor and fondness here, and the result is downright refreshing, no matter the orientation.
The screenplay moves at a deliberate pace, and many of the short scenes accomplish no more than to solidify Elio’s relationship with Oliver – as opposed to many American films in which each scene must advance the plot to some degree. The final scene between Elio and his father is bittersweet and moving, as Stuhlbarg’s acting chops are placed on display.
Chalamet becomes a star
Hammer is strong as the clean-cut Oliver, but Chalamet is the real star here. He’s appeared in several recent films (including the younger version of the Casey Affleck character in “Interstellar”), but this is his break-out role. He brings a sense of teen geekiness to Elio that I find invigorating. In so many American pictures, teens are presented as sexual experts, but “Call Me by Your Name” presents a reality we seldom experience. Chalamet now rivals Lucas Hedges as the top “older teen” star du jour.
I recommend “Call Me by Your Name,” with the caveat that this is a film about a gay relationship. If you can get past stereotypes and self-imposed boundaries, you’ll be in for a surprisingly deep and affectionate motion picture.