Chalamet And Hammer Break Through In Sensuous "Call Me By Your Name"

It’s an extraordinary thing for a narrative film to successfully observe its characters like they aren’t of its own creation – to make them utterly alive in front of us. It’s a feat that director Luca Guadagnino and writer James Ivory achieve in “Call Me By Your Name,” adapted from André Aciman’s novel of the same name. At 132 minutes, the ambrosial, free-flowing piece is overlong and almost too precise in its representation of a surprise romance in the Italian countryside circa 1983.

But as singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ “Visions Of Gideon” unfolds over the movie’s end credits – accompanied by a stirring close-up of star Timothée Chalamet – nothing else in the world matters. The character’s monsoon of emotion is all consuming, a considerable summary of everything the pic does right (spearheaded by two tremendous performances) and how roundly that outweighs what it does wrong.

Chalamet stars as Elio Perlman, a slender 17-year-old Jewish Italian-American living in northern Italy with his parents. An introverted musical prodigy, his days are spent composing music, poring over literature, and burning daylight with his French girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel). All of this changes when his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a soft-spoken archaeology professor, receives his summer assistant: a tall, handsome Jewish American graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio cedes his bedroom to Oliver, and soon, every nerve ending in his body.

James Ivory’s screenplay unfurls one of the most credible big screen romances in ages, evolving Elio and Oliver’s initial, mutual standoffishness into something closer to friendship. By the time their increasingly comfortable rapport does snowball into a full-on love story, Ivory and Guadagnino have found the perfect balance between fantasy and reality, never allowing us to forget the likelihood of the former being flattened by the latter.

The film’s sense of time and place is second to none, from the al fresco dance party where Oliver flails winningly to The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” as Elio looks on longingly, to the idyllic bike rides where the pair ultimately find easy silence and soft kisses in the tall grass. Guadagnino is careful to engage as many of the senses in each scene as possible – apricots and peaches feature heavily – while Ivory’s dialogue marinates in his characters’ surroundings.

Chalamet and Hammer are so convincing as Elio and Oliver that it’s difficult to communicate their successes in actorly terms. At times it seems they’re hardly acting at all, marrying perfectly natural performances to the amplified world that writer and director have made for them. Without Chalamet and Hammer’s involvement the project might have been a near miss; an ontologically challenged Italian getaway. The pic’s uncommon equanimity required not one but two career-defining performances. It found them.

Alternately, Stuhlbarg’s widely celebrated character and performance is, in the end, a bridge too far. The actor remains as endearing a performer as ever, but his climactic monologue to Elio is the wrong kind of unreal, illusory instead of immersive. His big speech is an unnecessary shortcut to tears that would have been there anyway, liable to ring hollow for all but the few moviegoers fortunate enough to have a unicorn for a father.

These missteps won’t strike all viewers as missteps though, and the totality of “Call Me By Your Name” is handsome and hypnotic.

The movie has been met with some criticism for its avoidance of more graphic sex scenes; this avoidance may or may not have to do with its existence as a high profile gay love story. But one or two scenes aside, the movie is about much more than sex, humming along on a rollercoaster feeling of new love. Above all, the film’s images and sounds don’t soon leave the mind, the familiar but haunting chord progression of “Visions Of Gideon” and Timothée Chalamet’s tear-streamed face burned into our brains for all time.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 24, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: James Ivory
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Esther Garrel, Amira Casar, Vanda Capriolo
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and some language)