[This is a re-post of my Call Me By Your Name review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release on November 24th.]
In my four years attending the Sundance Film Festival, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything as purely rapturous as Call Me by Your Name. The new feature film from I Am Love and A Bigger Splash filmmaker Luca Guadagnino chronicles a summer romance that blossoms between a young boy and a visitor in northern Italy, and by the film’s end it solidifies its place as one of the queer cinema greats alongside Carol, Brokeback Mountain, and Moonlight. The film is a tremendously sensual, hypnotic coming of age/coming out tale of first love. Anchored by a phenomenal breakout performance from Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer’s best work yet, and masterful craftsmanship, Call Me by Your Name is an instant addition to the best romances of the 21st century.
Based on the book of the same name by André Aciman, the film takes place in 1983 in Northern Italy, where a 17-year-old boy named Elio is spending the summer in his family’s 17th century villa. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of Greco-Roman culture, enlists a research assistant named Oliver (Hammer) to come and spend the summer with his family. Elio is transfixed by Oliver at first sight, but approaches the handsome American warily, keeping him at arm’s length. As the summer continues and Elio and Oliver play a game of chicken, daring one another to make the first romantic overture, the two finally give into their feelings and spark a romance that is passionate, playful, and pure.
Chalamet is nothing short of a revelation as Elio. The actor is probably best known for his work on Homeland or for a brief role in Interstellar, but this is one of the biggest breakthrough performances in recent memory. He imbues Elio with complicated layers—a confident exterior; a precocious charm; a fearful undercurrent. All of these shine through and more and he’s so good in the role that at first you even doubt whether he actually likes Oliver. Of course he’s simply preparing himself for rejection by throwing out the first jabs, but this results in a relationship that is at first delightfully contentious, then playfully so before turning into full on flirtation.
But as a closeted 17-year-old, Elio is still working out his feelings by losing his virginity to a local Italian girl who has the hots for him. Their relationship never comes off as phony, more as an exploration, and there’s a ticking clock plot point towards the end of the film that raises the stakes in hilariously sexy fashion.
As the relationship between Elio and Oliver becomes physical, the film really digs into this as a first love story and a coming out story. Love is universal, so the feelings between Elio and Oliver are the same feelings felt by all, but it’s nice that Guadagnino doesn’t ignore the elephant in the room: that Elio and Oliver’s sexuality is a thing to be hidden at that point in time. There’s a reason their relationship began so contentiously, and Oliver makes reference early in the film that he’s “been good” so far and doesn’t want to do anything to mess that up. It’s heartbreaking, really, to see Elio so miserable at the start of the film, surrounded by such beauty.
But this is no misery porn. The teasing that goes on between the two characters is magnificently handled by Guadagnino, who keeps a playful hand on the proceedings so as not to drown the film in self-serious romance. Summer flings are fun! So are first loves. And while this does blossom into something deeply felt, the summer season and Italian setting add a touch of lightheartedness to the scenes. Moreover, Guadagnino’s focus on sensuality over sexuality imbues the film with a romp vibe with an undeniable allure. One imagines that a more explicit or erotic version of the film would have downplayed how deeply felt the emotions are between Oliver and Elio.
Gorgeously shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Arabian Nights), this is a film that you just want to soak up. The Italian scenery is milked for all its worth, and the days filled with swimming, reading, and eating fresh fruit are divine. But the secret weapon to immersing audiences into the world of Call Me by Your Name is some incredible sound design. The footsteps on the gravel roads, the creaking floors in the ancient villa—you not only see this world, you feel it. That only allows the audience to fall deeper into the film’s trance, becoming infatuated with the romance between Elio and Oliver.