In the opening scenes of “Call Me By Your Name,” gay filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s exquisite adaptation of André Aciman’s exquisite novel, set in 1983, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives at Dr. Perlman’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) villa in northern Italy. A summer intern for the professor, Oliver is handsome, confident, intelligent, perhaps arrogant, and quite charming. He is also one tall drink of water that Perlman’s’ 17-year-old son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), soon begins to thirst for.
Guadagnino films Oliver — drinking apricot juice, playing volleyball shirtless, and dancing to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” — in a way that quickly has viewers appreciating Elio’s attraction if not swooning themselves. The filmmaker exacts such sexual magnetism out of his romantic leads that when Oliver touches Elio’s shoulder in an early scene, the erotic frisson between them is palpable.
Oliver, however, at first puts off Elio’s interest, having displaced the teen from his bedroom in the villa. Elio, in turn, finds Oliver’s penchant for saying “Later” to abruptly end conversations and excuse himself to be rude. Elio is a typically moody teenager: restless, virginal, and grappling with coming of age just as his same-sex feelings are unexpectedly stirred. When Elio puts a pair of Oliver’s shorts over his head, soaking in the scent of the object of his desire, it is a striking and telling moment of self-discovery for the youth.
The intern and teenager bond a bit when Oliver hears Elio playing music on a guitar and then performing variations on the piano. Oliver begins to pay attention to Elio, which increases the teenager’s fascination with the summer guest. In time, sitting in the town square one afternoon, Elio discloses his feelings for Oliver. Guadagnino films this exchange with the would-be lovers moving away from each other and then back toward each other in a way that makes viewers breathless with anticipation for the romance to come.
Things intensify when the couple becomes intimate. They share a sexy first kiss in the grass, and, when Oliver later manipulates Elio’s feet to soothe him, the moment is incredibly erotic. But “Call Me By Your Name” is less about sex and more about emotion. Guadagnino only briefly depicts passionate scenes between Elio and Oliver, instead emphasizing the sensuality of their bond, with his characters’ sun-drenched bodies lying around a pool or entwined naked in a bed.
Given the age gap between the lovers, Guadagnino is careful to show the relationship between Oliver and Elio as consensual — Oliver specifically asks Elio, “May I kiss you?” before they act on their attraction.
One of the film’s more tender scenes involves Elio’s arousal as he sits alone with a ripe peach, spilling its juice on his naked torso. When Oliver happens upon this, Elio feels a measure of shame, but Oliver consoles him as Elio becomes overwrought with tears.
“Call Me By Your Name” never shows Oliver and Elio directly discussing their being gay, and they keep their relationship a secret from the professor and his wife. But moments with the lovers almost holding hands as they walk around town and sitting together in a tree underscore their love.
The film makes an interesting point about power shifting back and forth between Elio and Oliver in their relationship. Oliver, trying to control their romance to maintain discretion, instructs Elio to “grow up.” But as Elio becomes emboldened in his love for Oliver, he’s also able to be more affectionate toward his parents. Touchingly, Elio and Oliver express their affection by calling each another by their own name.
The sensuality in Guadagnino’s film comes not only from the men’s relationship but also from the beauty of their surroundings. When the professor takes Oliver and Elio to see an archeological discovery, the moment is infused with wonder. Elio’s mother, Annella (Amira Casar), reads a German poem about someone being humbled by love, and the moment is thoughtful and arresting. As Elio and Oliver traverse a mountainous Italian landscape, waterfalls symbolize the abundance of their emotions.
Perhaps the most magnificent scene in the film, however, is an extremely touching and powerful exchange between father and son late in “Call Me By Your Name.” Spelling out the details would destroy its magic, but it will likely move viewers to tears.
Stuhlbarg is exceptional in that particular scene, as is Chalamet, for whom Elio is surely a breakout role. The young actor so perfectly and naturally encapsulates Elio’s desires, anxieties, and enthusiasms that viewers will embrace him from the start. As Oliver, Hammer conveys an cool insouciance that manages to be both sexy and infectious. And don’t miss writer Acimen’s cameo appearance as Mounir, one half of a gay couple who visit the Perlmans for an evening.
One of the best films of the year, “Call Me By Your Name” is a romantic drama that casts a truly seductive spell.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME | Directed by Luca Guadagnino | Sony Pictures Classics | Opens Nov. 24 | Regal Union Square, 850 Broadway at E. 13th
Luca Guadagnino, André Aciman, “Call Me By Your Name”, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet, Amira Casar