There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Around this time of year, many prestige films create a world that audiences are eager to leave. No one wants to spend more time than necessary in the Jim Crow South of Mudbound, or under the threat of Nazi annihilation in Darkest Hour. It is a rare treat to encounter a movie with a luxurious sense of place, and the coming-of-age romance Call Me By Your Name does exactly that. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by James Ivory, this film is set in picturesque northern Italy, creating a languid world that would be easy to get lost in. Like the lazy, late-summer days in which it takes place, the rush of the final minutes land with bittersweet wisdom, as if heartache is more certain than the changing season.
This is summer in 1983, long before smartphones, so the characters have no choice but to make their own fun. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) has no problem entertaining himself: At 17, he’s already an accomplished pianist and has the attention of all the girls in the small village where he lives. On top of English, he speaks French and Italian, suggesting comfort and ease in the idyll where he lives (Chalamet has no problems meeting the high demands of the multilingual, talented character).
Elio lives with his mother (Amira Casar) and father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeology professor, and the film begins with the arrival of a new houseguest. His name is Oliver (Armie Hammer), and he is a visiting scholar helping with the professor’s archeology projects. Elio is skeptical of Oliver: He is too brash, perhaps, or makes himself at home without the proper sense of deference. The two young men spend more time together, and their verbal sparring transitions have an additional, more sexual subtext. Their romance is tantalizing before they consummate it, and the film follows their relationship until it carries more meaning than either would care to admit.
James Ivory, one half of the producing/directing team Merchant-Ivory, adapted the screenplay from André Aciman’s novel while he was in his late eighties. At his advanced age, Ivory still internalizes the excitement, longing, and fear of new love. He and Guadagnino, however, are in no rush for Elio and Oliver get together. Guadagnino prefers long takes, suggesting a leisurely environment and understated suspense to each flurry of physical contact.
We come to care about the characters because they are funny and guarded, while the cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom creates a “wish I was there” feel to the unforced drama. The light is oversaturated, and the sun-kissed hue gives Oliver and Elio’s bodies inviting, increasingly erotic contours. Early in the film, there is a scene where Hammer—at six foot five—dances to “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs, and his clumsy limbs suggest dopey liberation. Elio observing Oliver is just as important: He does not know his place yet, so his guarded body language only suggests the passion that’s ready to burst.
Before most audiences have a chance to see Call Me By Your Name, there is already some controversy surrounding it. On one hand, the film centers on a sexual relationship between a teenage boy and a man in his early-twenties. On the other, Ivory only wishes that the film was more sexual (apparently both Chalamet and Hammer had stipulations in their contracts preventing full frontal nudity). Both of these controversies ignore the emotional context of Elio and Oliver’s relationship, which is both consensual and intense beyond mere fucking.
The film leads to moments of aching, vulnerable trust. In the scene that gives the film it’s title, Elio calls Oliver “Elio,” and vice versa. These nicknames seem silly, until we take a moment to think about what they reveal: In Elio, Oliver sees the man he hopes he can become, while Oliver sees the limitless potential and freedom a younger man represents.
A lot of Call Me By Your Name has a hazy, meandering quality to it. In its final moments, as summer draws to a close, Ivory’s script and the performances shift into sharp focus. While Hammer strikes a convincing balance between confidence and melancholy, the film ultimately belongs to Chalamet and Stuhlbarg. Elio’s father gives a lengthy, tender monologue that gently acknowledges his son’s sexuality, but is about a lot more—the need for heartbreak, and how it is an essential component of a life well-lived.
Like many scenes of the film, the monologue is almost a fantasy: Most parents are not so empathetic and perceptive about their children. Still, the father’s intuition is so confident and understated—developing dormantly as subtext—so Stuhlbarg’s pitch-perfect monologue comes from a genuine place of paternal love.
The film concludes on a long close-up of Chalamet. Elio does not say a word, nor does he have to, since Chalamet’s subtle facial tics summarize everything that the summer meant to Elio. This shot is a like a gift from the filmmakers: After such a singular time with Elio and Oliver, you may not be so rushed to let it end, either.
Call Me By Your Name opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.