Critic's Notebook: In 'Call Me by Your Name,' Timothee Chalamet Gives the Performance of the Year

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
'Call Me by Your Name'

The 21-year-old's stealthily devastating, masterfully modulated turn in Luca Guadagnino's Italy-set love story is one for the ages.

You don't immediately notice how extraordinary Timothee Chalamet is in Luca Guadagnino’s playful and profound coming-of-age masterpiece Call Me by Your Name.

As Elio, a brainy, brooding boy of 17 who falls in love with Oliver, his father’s 24-year-old research assistant (Armie Hammer, tremendous), in Italy during the summer of 1983, the actor at first comes off as an affably precocious but low-key teen. He toggles casually between English, French and Italian; plays piano with ironic panache; looks natural lolling about with a book in his hands, sunglasses and headphones on, or hunched over, pencil pressed to paper. Just wait: This is a performance so subtle and unfussy — so startlingly free of the kind of mannered, Method-y intensity that often dooms the work of young thesps — that you don’t see it coming straight for your gut.

The moment Chalamet’s greatness might begin to register comes 30 minutes in. Oliver has recently arrived from the States, and he, Elio and some friends are at a nightclub. Whatever attraction exists between the two young men is, at this point, unacknowledged, though their exchanges have been tinged with erotic tension, as well as rivalry and misapprehension. Elio, sitting at a slight remove from the others, suddenly leans forward, watching Oliver intently as he dances. He chews his lips, drags on a cigarette. In Chalamet’s gaze is a gathering storm of conflicting impulses: desire, defensiveness, fear, fascination. Elio shakes it off, chugs his cocktail and hits the dance floor — swinging his hips, rolling his shoulders…and ignoring Oliver completely. Rarely has the tug of war between a teen’s inner and outer selves been conveyed with such exhilarating immediacy.

Therein is the genius of Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name: He pulls you far into the churning depths — the lust and longing, self-loathing, zigzagging intellect and abiding goodness — below Elio’s placid surface. That, of course, is part of the actor’s task: to conjure a character’s emotional life. But even the best sometimes miscalculate, giving away too much or too little, or calling attention to the effort. Chalamet walks a tightrope: He respects Elio’s reserve — his elusiveness, his somewhat studied nonchalance — while letting you see the thrillingly human mess underneath. There’s breathtaking craft and control in the performance, but not once do you sense the tools at work.

Whereas Andre Aciman’s first-person novel, from which the film is adapted, makes the reader privy to the protagonist’s most intimate thoughts, Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory have given Elio no voiceover or monologue. With his delicate romantic features and wiry limbs, Chalamet builds an almost pointillist portrait via sighs and shrugs, grimaces and glances, smiles and variations in voice and posture (not to mention a handful of hungry kisses and one innovative bit of debauchery involving a peach). Once the actor gets his hooks in you, you’re with Elio through every flickering doubt, burst of boldness and swell of tenderness; Chalamet turns this sun-dappled love story into a thriller of the heart.

Call Me by Your Name is about a young man mustering the courage to want what he wants and feel what he feels — “to speak and not die,” as 16th-century French author Marguerite de Navarre wrote in The Heptameron, a line referenced in the film. And just as Elio, by the end, has collapsed the once-daunting distance between his inner and outer selves, Chalamet has collapsed the distances between performer, character and viewer. You may not realize how much until you’re watching the doozy of a final shot and Elio’s tears become your own.