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There is a scene toward the end of Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s intimate and piercingly honest adaptation of Andre Aciman’s superb novel, in which a graying university professor in Italy sits down with his puffy-eyed, 17-year-old son for an unexpected talk. Dad quotes Montaigne’s famous phrase about his special friendship with Étienne de La Boetie. His son, who has been very smart academically for some time but only recently experienced an important emotional growth spurt on his way to adulthood, understands that his father is referring to his offspring’s “special friendship” with the handsome, 24-year-old intern from the U.S. who stayed with them for the summer and has just returned home.
In someone else’s hands, the exchange might have become pretentious, ridiculous or melodramatic and lachrymose, but Guadagnino, most famous for the far splashier features I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, finds exactly the right tone for the material, which is understated and filled with paternal affection. Even viewers who aren’t able to identify the quote by Montaigne, uttered in the original French, will understand that Dad is using a common intellectual interest as a safe way to express a new idea. It is this kind of attention to detail — much of it lifted directly from the book, adapted by Guadagnino with James Ivory and editor Walter Fasano — that provides the film with its unexpectedly deep wells of emotion and surges of insight into human nature and relationships.
Starring a never-more-sensual Armie Hammer as the intern, the breathtaking Timothee Chalamet (formerly of Homeland) as the son and the great Michael Stuhlbarg as the father, this tender and minutely observed queer romance, set in bucolic Lombardy (changed from the Ligurian seaside in the novel), could, with the right marketing, become a breakout title for Sony Pictures Classics.
Professor Perlman (Stuhlbarg) is specialized in Greco-Roman sculpture and has a summer intern over every year in the family’s 17th century country palazzo. When the guest arrives, Perlman’s only child, the lanky and studious teenager Elio (Chalamet), is asked to leave his bedroom to Oliver (Hammer) and move into an adjacent storage room for the summer. Like the ritual that gives the film its title, this is not an insignificant detail, as the transfer of bedrooms already suggests that Oliver and Elio are closely connected and, to a large extent, at once interchangeable and part of a single, greater whole.
Initially, the inexperienced Elio doesn’t quite know what to make of the American seven years his senior and the feeling seems mutual. The cinematography from Thai director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boomee…, Arabian Nights) reflects this idea, keeping everything in medium or wider shots and only rarely moving into the characters’ private spaces. The first close-up of Elio, while he intently watches Oliver dance with a girl at a village party, thus arrives as something of a shock. Perhaps even for Elio: Could he be questioning himself, wondering whether he’s jealous?
Since the action is set not only in Italy but also in 1983, this same-sex attraction would not be readily accepted, so the characters need to be eased into admitting what they might be feeling for each other. As in the scene quoted earlier, seemingly innocent elements of culture — Greek statues, medieval novels — are leveraged to discuss certain ideas that cannot be uttered out loud. In one of the film’s most daring choices, the realization that the two might be talking about the same thing is shot around a Battle of the Piave monument on a piazza in a wide shot, Elio’s back toward the camera and Oliver much further back, his face barely visible. The counterintuitive choice places the two men, talking about the love that dares not speak its name, out in the open but because we can’t see their faces clearly, they could be anyone.
The camera moves in for their first kiss, however, a pastoral moment of joy that recalls the discovery of love in the countryside around Cambridge in E.M. Forster’s classic novel Maurice (Ivory directed the film version in 1987). From that moment on, their relationship develops in fits and starts, as Oliver initially wants to “remain a good boy” and “not corrupt” Elio, but the hungry adolescent wants more. Both also have dalliances with local girls — these subplots have been heavily pruned from the novel — which here feel like ammunition in the tug-of-war between two men destined for each other. Some elegant visual shortcuts, such as the Star of David necklace that Elio starts wearing again after having discovered Oliver also has one (both are Jewish), also help condense some of the novel’s midsection.
The couple’s physical rapport is an essential part of the novel, and the film is extremely sensual, with both leads frequently walking around in just (swim) shorts during the languid summer days. The handful of sex scenes are tastefully shot but short and not particularly explicit, though Aciman’s famous peach scene — Google this at your own risk if you haven’t read the novel — is featured here in modest but unambiguous fashion. The relative discretion about the full physical compatibility of the men could potentially help the film gain a wider audience beyond the LGBTQ community, but feels a little too restrained for who these characters have become by the time they consummate their relationship.
Though Hammer might be the bigger star and he certainly has a juicier-than-usual role here that he clearly relishes, the true breakout of the film is 21-year-old Chalamet. Elio is someone who is experiencing a lot of things for the first time, for which he barely has any words, but Chalamet’s face and body language turn his character into an open book. The minutes-long and wordless final shot, another rare close-up of Elio, is so mesmerizing that it immediately cements his status as one of the world’s brightest young talents. The chemistry between the men is palpable, but what’s more important, they convey their characters’ complex emotions, expectations and thoughts without necessarily opening their mouths.
The rest of the small cast, very much including Stuhlbarg, in that scene mentioned at the start of this review and elsewhere, is also uniformly excellent. A minor detail that will be problematic for audiences in Europe is the mix of languages used, with the Perlmans in the film an unconvincing hodgepodge of Italian, French and American ancestry. The large amount of French dialogue can partially be explained by the fact that the film is a French co-production, though the only actor who convincingly pulls off all the languages she supposedly speaks fluently is Kurdish-Russian actress Amira Casar, who plays Mrs Perlman.
The film’s costumes and production design nail the look of 1980s rural Italy, with Guadagnino actually having shot in and around the picturesque village where he lives. References to political life in Italy, entirely absent from the novel, are also convincing and add texture. Some classical pieces and Sufjan Stevens’ glorious score complete the all-round classy package.
Production companies: Memento Films, RT, Frenesy, Water’s End
Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: Luca Guadagnino, James Ivory, Walter Fasano, based on the novel by Andre Aciman
Producers: Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, Rodrigo Teixeira, Marco Morabito
Director of photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Production designer: Samuel Dehors
Costume designer: Giulia Piersanti
Editor: Walter Fasano
Music: Sufjan Stevens
No rating, 130 minutes
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