Call Me by Your Name

(2017) **** R
132 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Luca Guadagnino. Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Esther Garrel, Amira Casar.

/content/films/5089/1.jpgThe orchard ringing an American family's sun-dappled Northern Italian 17-century villa bears peaches, cherries, apricots, and pomegranates. And that's just the non-forbidden fruit in the sensual coming-of-age romance Call Me By Your Name. The plot could be called a gay Summer of '42 in its wistful pairing of a twentysomething and a teenager, but director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory apply a soulful sophistication to the complexities of first love, even more troubling as "the love that dare not speak its name."

Over six summer weeks in 1983, two young men meet, flirt, make passes, bond, and develop a love for one another. Coltish 17-year-old Elio (a remarkable Timothée Chalamet) shares the villa with his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg, in a perfectly sly turn) and translator mother Annella (Amira Casar), but must give up his room every summer to Mr. Perlman's resident intern. This year it's 24-year-old American grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer, upping his game), and as Elio moves to the adjoining room, he explains the intimate arrangement, in which the two share a bathroom ("It's my only way out").

From the very start, Elio’s male gaze and precocious intellect take in everything about Oliver, from his strapping frame to his carefree attitude to his habit of ending a conversation with an insouciant “Later.” By film’s end, it’s clear that everyone here also takes loving notice of Elio: his noninterventionist parents, his friend and wishful girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel), and Oliver, who tempers his sexual interest with at least some measure of caution, both for the sake of discretion and Elio’s feelings. He knows what we know: how easy it is to hurt someone, especially one experiencing the first blush of love.

As with most romances, Call Me by Your Name runs on tangled emotions and social obstacles, here found in the subtext readable on faces and in anxious body language (as well as in two Sufjan Stevens songs penned for the film: “Mysteries of Love” and “Visions of Gideon”). Interest turns quickly to mutual annoyance then again to pained longing. When everything but the two men falls away, what remains is a deep connection, the nature of which the film doesn’t need to spell out. Some will see it as pure love, some as purely sexual desire, some as unadvisable, some as improper. But an eleventh-hour monologue by a key character carefully, tenderly acknowledges its specialness to Elio and refuses to judge it as anything but a milestone to be cherished.

Working from André Aciman’s 2007 novel, octogenarian Ivory has crafted one of the finest screenplays of the year, its light-touch smarts culminating in a blood rush of wisdom. Elio and Oliver's Jewishness, a cultural specificity that can be hidden or revealed, mirrors their homosexual tendencies (each character flirts with heterosexuality as well, though more likely in a sign of denial than enthusiastic bisexuality). An older gay couple, family friends that visit the Perlmans, by their presence insist upon the possibility of lasting love between two men, and a married character later implies he regrets, in his youth, choosing denial over possibility. When Elio and Oliver finally discuss what's going on between them, their conflicted talk wafts across a plaza's gated WWI memorial (“If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter,” the younger man laments).

Following Ivory's blueprint, Guadagnino has coaxed from his cast a film unmatched this year for lifelike rhythms and attention to human behavior. Since it’s also a travelogue filigreed with fragments of antique European art (most prominently beautifully wrought statuary of the male form, after the ancient Greeks), literature (a 16th century French romance about a “knight who doesn’t know whether to speak or die”), philosophy (Heraclitus’ theory of constant flux) and music (young Bach), it’s also a gorgeous, reflective film that unfolds at a deceptively lazy pace: in point of fact, there’s not a moment in it that isn’t necessary.

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