By: Steve Pulaski
Elio is a 17-year-old Jewish boy, soaking up all the rays and inspiration over the course of a summer spent with family in the Italian countryside. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and mother (Amira Casar) invite a fellow Jewish graduate student, named Oliver to live with them during the season. Elio and Oliver don't have much in common. Elio enjoys the pleasantries afforded by quietly reading and composing music, while Oliver embraces the spontaneity he seeks out in life. Need I say any more?
For the next 132 minutes, Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name explores this central relationship, which gracefully evolves from being a pairing of warm-hearted strangers to a passionate case of emotionally complex lovers. The attraction the two men have for one another doesn't spring into the air from the moment they are introduced to one another, but much like in real life, builds over the course of days and weeks. Harmless glances turn to gazes and confidence dissolves into uncertainty and hesitance, while the gravity of the relationship starts to take its toll on both men, who only expected a routine summer when fate had plans of its own.
Elio is played by Timothée Chalamet, whom you might recognize as the pompous cynic from Lady Bird. Oliver is played by Armie Hammer, who accompanies Chalamet on-screen by bringing a veteran presence. The two are effective together, but it doesn't start that way. When they first meet, you question how and when these two men will have evident chemistry until you see it slowly start to come alive over the course of the film. Elio has a standoffish personality at times, while Oliver's impulsiveness creates friction for a graceful story. These details disappear as the film gets going and hearts are put on the line in a convincing fling that underscores almost all cop-outs to make this an incredulous romance ala Nicholas Sparks. Even as Marzia (Esther Garrel), one of Elio's friends, suggests a physical relationship, to which Elio accepts, the focus is still retained on the progression of what the young boy and Oliver have. The film never loses sight on what the film is really about and how intensely special it is for both characters.
Call Me by Your Name is so very romantic and so very French. Guadagnino and writer James Ivory both take many cues from French directors like Éric Rohmer and, in turn create a film brimful of affect and tender, human affection. Rohmer, who spent much of the 1990s making his "Tale of Four Seasons" quadrilogy, with one romance film taking place in each of the four seasons, focused his attention on the way people interacted with one another when things like love and lust hindered their ability to have clear heads. He also knew how to make exchanges between his characters feel natural, with a musicality to their words that made them more than constructs or devices to move the plot. Ivory appears to subscribe to a similar school of thought, letting Elio, Oliver, and their impulses take over when on-screen together. Big moments are not instances of passionate love-making, but rather bike-riding and wading in a small body of water; sometimes it's as simple as one entering another one's personal space just to observe what goes on in their daily life. The banal details of romance can often serve as the foundation of a great romantic movie. It's unfortunate that most want to get right to the spectacle.
Chalamet and Hammer are great together, and Guadagnino takes notice, which is probably why he felt confident enough to have so many scenes of the two engaging in the aforementioned activities. Admittedly, the impressionistic approach to their relationship does lead to a film that feels overlong in some sense. Those who have grown accustomed to the tropes of so many romantic movies will find that Call Me by Your Name doesn't build the way you expect, and that could either frustrate or mesmerize you. For me, I appreciated the film's careful examination of the way feelings grown on people and how individuals deal with those feelings under the intense pressure put on themselves by their desire to be happy or at least marginally content. Ivory gets wrapped up in the essence of it all, and sometimes makes a film where moments feel repetitious or motivations are unclear. Thus is the messiness of love; sometimes it's elusive and drags on longer than it should.
The only unambiguous misstep Ivory makes is one commonly made in films that detail gay relationships; call it "the Brokeback Mountain problem" if you will. You've likely seen it. It exists when a film about two men in love has its intimacy or happy ending soured by circumstances out of the characters' control. While films focusing on straight relationships often have the same, I've seen this as a caveat in many gay films, and Call Me by Your Name is no exception. The moment comes when Elio and Oliver are finally about to have sex and just as they do, Guadagnino's camera pans over to the window to observe an apricot tree, ditching the overflowing passion to drive home a metaphor, taking something crystal clear and turning it into something needlessly layered. If there were ever a moment to let the camera linger, like Guadagnino so often does here, it should've been this one.
Call Me by Your Name does manage to accomplish the difficult task of taking a story ripe for pathos and sentimentality and capitalizing on those elements in a very mature manner. It doesn't harbor a desire to exploit its characters or treat what they have as a byproduct of young, stupid love. Like Elio's father, it recognizes that these souls have something, and by illustrating it so carefully and artistically, it winds up impressing and even humbling you.