Since it premiered at film festivals earlier this year, Call Me by Your Name has inspired reviews that sound as though they were written in mid-swoon. Frankly, the movie itself encourages this: It’s a lush wallow at an Italian villa, a coming-of-age story that presents sensual adventure and a warm portrait of a functional family. Everything’s ideal, even the angst. It also features sex with a piece of fruit, although this is rendered cute and endearing; nothing too weird disturbs this movie’s handsome surface.
If I sound a little skeptical, I am—but the film is certainly pleasant to be seduced by. If we can stop dwelling on the piece of fruit for a moment, here’s the drift: It’s 1983, in northern Italy, where 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is facing another summer break at his family’s beautifully worn villa. His father (Michael Stuhlberg) is an academic researching ancient artifacts, his mother (Amira Casar) an Italian who inherited the villa. In contrast to the idyllic setting are Elio’s problems. Musically gifted but a little lost, he expends some energy on a local girl (Esther Garrel) until his world is shaken by the arrival of a “usurper.” This is Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s grad student, who’s come to Italy to assist the professor for a few weeks. Oliver is confident and cocky, and maybe just a little hollow—all of which are ideally captured by Armie Hammer’s cheerful-surfer manner and inflection-free voice.
Some serious heat develops between Elio and Oliver, and although the film is clear about this attraction’s importance, I think it’s also all right to observe that the tale falls short of being a great love story—simply because Oliver is so much less interesting than Elio. This is Elio’s world, and the restless teen is lashing out in all directions, driven by hormones and keen intellectual curiosity. The movie wouldn’t be half as interesting without the livewire performance by Chalamet, who has knocked around in supporting roles in Interstellar and Lady Bird. Already the winner of Best Actor awards from critics’ groups in New York and L.A., Chalamet gives a nervy, confident performance that vaults him into the front rank of actors his age (he’s 21). You believe that Elio exists, and that he belongs in this artsy European setting.
Call Me by Your Name is based on a novel by Andre Aciman, adapted by James Ivory, the director of A Room with a View and Howards End. The directing chores are handled not by Ivory but by Luca Guadagnino, whose gorgeous and slightly daft films I Am Love and A Bigger Splash have won him a following. Guadagnino’s tendency to ladle on the dreamy set design and lofty art references are on full display here, but they feel more grounded in recognizable people. Although the material occasionally steers in the vicinity of a 1980s teen romance directed by Randall Kleiser (Summer Lovers fans, you know who you are), there’s enough torment and joy generated to cast a real spell. And once in a while the movie absolutely soars: during an initial stop-and-start encounter between the boys, during a sequence where local teens dance to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” and most mysteriously while Elio and Oliver wander around a memorial in a town square, sorting out issues while not quite naming them.
One of the pleasures of this kind of high-art approach, especially in our anti-education era, is being able to listen to smart people talk about music and language and history. Elio always has a book in his hand, as though reading were an integral part of a person’s intellectual and erotic life. With that point, Call Me by Your Name wins me over—it has its highfalutin’ aspects, but its fantasy of a summer idyll is convincing. Wrapped in pretty images and lazy-afternoon pacing and a couple of heartfelt Sufjan Stevens songs written for the film, this film is indeed an incitement to swoon. Opens Fri., Dec. 22 at Meridian, Seattle 10, SIFF Uptown, Lincoln Square Theaters; rated R