‘Call Me By Your Name’ is radically heartfelt coming-of-age story

Luca Guadagnino’s tale of first love in is both gorgeous, genuinely devastating


"Call Me By Your Name" is a beautifully shot, heartbreaking but well-acted love story that completely lives up to its hype.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Feel my feet above the ground / Hand of God, deliver me,” croons Sufjan Stevens, like a modern-day mystic, over one of “Call Me By Your Name”’s moments of true, all-consuming bliss. It’s both a literal and metaphorical ascent — at this point in the film, freshly-minted lovers Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) are breathlessly climbing the Apennines — but there’s also a wondrous sense of revelation in seeing the world’s vastness around them, knowing that they don’t have to behave like they’re being watched here, that they don’t have to rein in their devotion at all. It’s a fleeting climax, an ascent that feels all the more brilliant because it’s so achingly temporary.

Under Luca Guadagnino’s deft direction, the film renders that stretch of ephemeral glory real enough to touch. Based on a 2007 novel by André Aciman, its story centers on the coming-of-age of precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman, the son of an American professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his cosmopolitan wife (Amira Casar). The polyglot family — all easily carry on conversations in English, French and Italian alike — spend their summers in an stately Italian villa as Elio’s father continues his research on classical antiquity. Oliver, an aggressively handsome American scholar, has been invited to stay as a student of the latter, but his presence has much more seismic implications for Elio.

At first, their love blooms almost unbearably slowly. The film revels in its slow, purposeful sensuousness without ever lagging — rather, it perfectly recreates the pace of a hazy, mythic adolescent summer. Unsaid desire is translated into the lush visual language of quickly averted glances across the hall or a tantalizingly brief touch during a volleyball game, all moments that feel like self-contained thrillers. The camera is content to linger on ripe apricots dripping from leafy boughs or a fly crawling across Elio’s legs.

Even the smallest spaces, like the single bathroom that connects Elio and Oliver’s rooms, become electrically charged through objects like Oliver’s swim trunks or clandestinely-passed notes. Elio’s father studies ancient Greek sculptures, and their pristinely carved bodies become avatars of longing. 

“Muscles are firm. Not a straight body in these statues, they’re all curved,” the professor observes. “Sometimes impossibly curved, and so nonchalant. Hence, their ageless ambiguity, as if they’re daring you to desire them.” 

One gets the sense that Elio wishes he could mold his own uncertain flesh into something resembling that mythic perfection.

Yet while this aesthetic richness is an achievement in itself, it’s the acting that makes “Call Me By Your Name” so wholly mesmerizing. As Elio, Chalamet delivers a stunning performance that captures all the nuance and contradiction of teenage emotion. He’s a musical prodigy who can improvise renditions on a Bach piano composition in an instant, yet he’s still not at home in his own body. 

Even when lovestruck, he takes pains to cultivate an air of cavalier indifference and initiates haphazard hookups with his friend Marzia, a local French girl (Esther Garrel). There’s genuine humor and empathy in his pursuit of Oliver, and perhaps most crucially, the film frames their love affair as a largely interior journey of discovery for Elio. Despite the film’s 1980s setting, no boorish homophobic bullies nor whispers of AIDS loom over the narrative to lend it artificial tension — it trusts that Elio’s own, self-actualizing revelation of love is gripping enough to sustain our attention. 

As Oliver, Hammer’s performance is equally excellent and perhaps more surprising — while often typecast as comically brutish meathead types — as in his prior roles in Oscar-nominated films “The Social Network” and “Nocturnal Animals” — here his sheer magnetism and warmth makes it easy to see why Elio falls so hard for him. The film delights in observing his Ken-doll physicality and casual, self-assured American mannerisms, such as his habit of saying “later!” that Elio pokes fun at but eventually grows endeared to. 

But his unabashed self-confidence is also what prompts Elio’s curiosity and eventual adoration. One of the film’s most entrancing moments takes place on a neon-lit outdoor dance floor, as Oliver wholeheartedly pumps his arms to the Psychedelic Furs’ hit “Love My Way.” The comparatively demure Elio, whose family are so-called “Jews of discretion,” marvels at the Star of David pendant that Oliver wears under his collar — a clear external representation of his otherness. 

The bond between Elio and Oliver feels so blazingly alive that when the last-act heartbreak finally arrives, it doesn’t just feel like a requisite story beat — its pain feels almost palpable, as ragged and genuine as a personal loss. But even here, the film leaves viewers with a sense of renewed understanding and resilience, particularly through a gripping piece of advice that Elio’s father leaves with his son. 

“Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste,” he urges.

The pain is agonizingly real, and yet that initial ecstasy — that dazzling, indescribable knowledge of discovering love for the first time — will remain with both Elio and the audience forever. The film’s devastating final frame is simply a continuous shot of Elio’s trembling face, an open map of unspoken vulnerability. 

“Is it a video?” Stevens’ voice asks plaintively as the camera holds tight. Technically, yes, and yet it was so much more.

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