The most shocking thing about “Call Me By Your Name” is that it isn’t as shocking as you might think.
If you’ve been following the news even in passing over the last few months then you know that intergenerational gay relationships have sprung up as a kind of cultural “third rail,” but director Luca Guadagnino, armed with a screenplay adapted by James Ivory from Andre Aciman’s bestselling novel, shows no prurient interest in exploring this topic. “Call Me By Your Name” – which details the summer fling between a 24-year-old man and the 17-year-old son of his employer – unfolds as a sweet-spirited romantic idyll, blithely unconcerned with societal disdain, and therefore at a considerable (and comfortable) remove from the current brouhaha.
Set in northern Italy in 1983, the film takes place in the home (and surrounding bucolic environs) of Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) who specializes in the study Greco-Roman culture. Every summer, the professor hosts a learned acolyte to assist with his work; this year it’s a youthful, vigorous and very handsome scholar named Oliver (Armie Hammer). This new arrival in the household catches the interest of the professor’s son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) – and the feeling is mutual. Though each feigns indifference, as the summer progresses their attraction becomes impossible to ignore, until it blossoms into a full-blown – albeit secretive – romance.
Again, it can’t be emphasized strongly enough how un-sensational this all is. There is none of the heavy breathing of “Brokeback Mountain” nor even the guilt-haunted caressing (and accompanying social angst) of Ivory’s gay classic, “Maurice.” Indeed, when the sex finally happens (no spoiler there – anyone walking into this film is sure to be expecting it), although undeniably erotic, it is handled with a kind of staid observational academicism. Guadagnino and his actors emphasize tenderness and feeling, capturing the magic of first-time dalliance in a way that makes it seem, if not wholly innocent, at least entirely wholesome.
Of course, although the sex is a crucial element, it’s not all there is to “Call Me By Your Name.” More than a romance, the film is really a “coming of age” story – a key aspect that benefits greatly from Chalamet’s remarkable performance. He commits completely to revealing all the complex, contradictory impulses that accompany his rite of passage; it’s an unforgettable portrait of a boy’s journey to manhood, accomplished with rare insight and honesty.
As for Hammer – an actor whose career has survived several misfires largely on the strength of his impossibly good looks – he offers a less showy, but equally effective performance as Oliver. Introduced as an enigma, approachable yet aloof and seemingly as arrogant as he is polite, he slowly allows the layers to peel back as he lets Elio into his carefully guarded emotional inner sanctum, subtly revealing that this heady summer fling is perhaps even more of a joyful release for him than it is for his youthful lover. Together, these two have an electrifying chemistry – obviously an essential component of what makes this film work.
There is also fine work from the supporting ensemble. Special mention goes to Esther Garrel, for a radiant and heartbreaking turn as a young girl caught up in a misguided dalliance with the confused and hormone-driven Elio; but perhaps most memorable is Stuhlbarg, whose generous and eminently likable performance as Elio’s father culminates in a candid and moving speech that serves as an unexpected emotional touchstone.
Director Guadagnino knows his actors are key, but he doesn’t ignore the ample opportunity afforded by the picturesque Italian villa and surrounding landscape in which his film is set. Beautifully photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the sun-soaked countryside, bursting with natural metaphor, defines the atmosphere for this story of summer love — appropriately enough for a film penned (brilliantly) by Ivory, whose pastoral romances of the ‘80s are evoked in every frame.
Guadagnino additionally feeds the mood with the circumstances of his premise; this is, after all, a story about academics, and the director exploits the cultural and artistic influences with which they surround themselves – from the contained eroticism of Greek sculpture, to the measured sensuality of classical piano music, he uses the intellectualism of his characters’ world to fuel the slow build toward Oliver and Elio’s union.
He also revels in the visual language of cinema. Much in “Call Me By Your Name” is communicated without words; its biggest revelations are conveyed through a glance, a touch, even a lingering shot of an apricot tree. His most overt filmic nod comes with the closing scene, in which he lets his camera rest on Elio’s face – a shot as devastating as the famous close-up of Harriet Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s “Summer with Monica,” released 64 years ago.
Guadagnino isn’t exactly the gay Bergman, at least not yet. Still, what he’s created here is some distance from Luchino Visconti’s film of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” where a beautiful youth overwhelms a dying artist with feelings he’d never known.
In the context of the present moment, of course, where intergenerational gay desire has become the stuff of scandal, neither Mann nor Visconti can serve as a reference point. In a “post-Kevin Spacey” world, it is inevitable that “Call Me By Your Name” will generate controversy – but from a larger perspective, that’s beside the point.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a sophisticated exploration of a situation long overdue for such expression. Wistfully nostalgic, short on explicit conflict, and leisurely paced, it will likely have much more appeal for an older generation of audiences who will also be far more apt to pick up on the subtle meditation of “the psychology of the closet” that exists as an undercurrent within the action. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is not relevant in our contemporary world.
As a gay love story, told without judgment and without apology, it’s something that would have seemed unthinkable not so very long ago – and that feels like progress.