The decision to unveil Call Me by Your Name at Sundance and the Berlinale, two festivals that virtually guarantee hostile weather, was a masterstroke. The sensual, sun-kissed pleasure Luca Guadagnino’s ravishing new film trades in seemed all the more precious and poignant as soon as I stepped out of the cinema to face the biting winds and oppressive grey skies of Potsdamer Platz in February.
Director Luca Guadagnino
Oliver Armie Hammer
Elio Perlman Timothée Chalamet
Mr. Perlman Michael Stuhlbarg
Annella Perlman Amira Casar
Marzia Esther Garrel
Chiara Victoire Du Bois
Inspired by André Aciman’s 2007 novel, Guadagnino invites us to spend a sweltering 1980s summer on the Italian Riviera, in the lush grounds of a sprawling cliffside mansion owned by the Perlmans (Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg), a couple of charismatic, globe-trotting academics. Their precocious teenage son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) idles away his days reading, transcribing sheet music and lounging around with his seemingly part-time girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).
Into this bourgeois fantasy strides Oliver (Armie Hammer), a dashing grad student hired by Elio’s father as a research assistant. Elio is plainly smitten, but Oliver is trickier to fathom, charmingly attentive one moment, dismissively aloof the next. Nevertheless, a bond between the pair begins to form.
The relationship is, to a large extent, defined by a significant age gap – in the novel, Elio is 17, Oliver 24. A more timid filmmaker might have attempted to obfuscate this by casting actors of comparable appearance and stature, preemptively shutting down questions of whether Oliver might be considered predatory. Guadagnino does quite the opposite – Chalamet was 20 at the time of filming but appears younger, with his slight frame, cherubic complexion and awkward gait. Thirty-year-old Hammer meanwhile is practically a living, breathing parody of virile masculinity, all swaggering self-assurance and lingering, suggestive glances. Make no mistake, this a love story between a fully-grown man and someone on the precipice of adulthood, and the film isn’t afraid to confront the specificity of that scenario.
But it swiftly transpires that there’s nothing remotely exploitative afoot here. After Oliver makes a tentative first move – a playful back rub administered in full view of Elio’s friends – he immediately backs off, clearly concerned about overstepping boundaries. But Elio is resolutely the master of his own destiny, prepared both emotionally and intellectually to experience the disorienting thrill of a truly intimate relationship – and thus he pursues it unwaveringly. Chalamet conveys this coming-of-age utterly convincingly, with Elio seeming to oscillate between states of listlessness, frustration and arousal.
Reining in the ostentatious directorial style he peddled in I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino is content here to linger by the poolside as an enraptured voyeur, revelling not only in the simmering erotic tension, but also in the meals his characters share and the bucolic landscape they inhabit. The film is set in 1983, just as the gay community faced its darkest hour with the onset of the Aids epidemic and the ensuing hysteria. But the director has little interest in the outside world, instead presenting a kind of hermetically sealed utopia in which the protagonists can make sense of their conflicting feelings and explore their desires without fear of reproach or repercussion.
Stripped of the baggage that so often complicates and corrupts queer romance, Call Me by Your Name is allowed to flourish as an unfiltered evocation of the agony and ecstasy of first love.