Overview: A teen and a graduate student reckon with their surprising shared attraction during the former’s six week stay at the latter’s home in Northern Italy. 2017; Rated R; Sony Pictures Classics; 132 minutes.
A Stranger’s Touch: It’s easy to become immune to the intimacy of touch. We’ve grown so used to making physical contact with those we’re close with that it doesn’t make much of an impact when it happens. And when we shake hands with someone, we’re expecting it, though maybe we’re taken a bit by the strength of the grip or the coarseness of the hand.
But being touched by somebody new, a stranger or acquaintance? Your husband or wife or best friend can place their hand on your shoulder, but if someone does it to you for the first time, you’re bound to feel something different. It might feel welcoming, intrusive, odd, or anything in between. But it’ll make you feel something on the inside. What you feel in that moment can change everything.
Touch is a crucial element of Call Me By Your Name, the new film from Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), adapted by James Ivory from the titular book by Andre Aciman. It tells the story of Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year-old son of an American archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) living in a lavish home in a sleepy Northern Italy town. It’s the summer of 1983 and the family is hosting a gifted graduate student, Oliver, (Armie Hammer) for six weeks. At first, Elio seems to resent Oliver. As usual, he gives up his room for his father’s guest. Elio also has to show Oliver around town, and Oliver seems to ingratiate himself in the small town very quickly—soon he’s playing cards at the bar with the town’s elders and volleyball with the youth. He goes out dancing with Elio and his friends, getting particularly close with one of the group’s girls.
As the days come and go, these disparate interactions between Elio and Oliver build and build, and it becomes clear to both that the attraction is mutual. Still, there is a sense that they can’t or shouldn’t act on their feelings. Things move slowly, in fits and starts. Is it because of their age difference? Oliver’s mentorship from Elio’s father? The temporary nature of Oliver’s stay? All of these things and more likely contribute, not to mention that both have thus far kept their sexuality to themselves.
The Physical is Emotional: The Italian setting is picturesque, and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom lets the colors of the sky and grass and water pop. But this isn’t a movie that needs wide, beautiful vistas. Guadagnino keeps a patient and observant eye throughout, letting the camera linger on faces and reactions and the emotions that they depict. He uses backgrounds and negative space effectively, particularly in the early scenes where Elio and Oliver are learning and noticing more about each other. Sometimes it’s as though we’re being urged to watch the watcher. The movie is very interested in the physical, in particular how male bodies move, position themselves, and, well, look. Elio and Oliver spend a large portion of the film shirtless, not only in private moments.
One of the many affirming aspects of Call Me By Your Name is how it avoids the pitfall that so many forbidden love stories lean on, in which the relationship goes against the values of one of the parties, or their family. In this film, there’s no shocking reveal of the relationship that causes an uproar. You maybe expect this to come from Elio’s father, but Stuhlbarg’s patriarch allows his son some cultural leeway. We do get the sense that he expects a lot of his son—he often asks Elio to play piano for guests, and the family’s taste, interests and attitude can convincingly be considered highbrow. But this isn’t an overbearing, uber-protective father character. While this is a love story between two young people through and through, the father plays a big role. He’s the one with perhaps the most up-close look at how both his son and mentor have changed over these six weeks, and he uses those observations to deliver a beautiful and heartfelt monologue that acts as the film’s de facto climax.
Grab and Hold: I won’t reveal what the father says in this crucial sit-down, but it relates in ways back to the idea of touch. When Elio and Oliver lament all the time they lost while delaying their attraction from turning into something more, Elio wonders why Oliver didn’t give him a sign. Oliver did, he tells Elio—that day at the volleyball game, when he touched Elio’s shoulder, felt the tension in it, and gave it a brief massage. Elio may have felt physical relief, but we know what he really remembers from that moment wasn’t the relaxation of a muscle in his back.
It’s probably movie review malpractice to comment for this long on Call Me By Your Name and not mention the performances of both Chalamet and Hammer. Suffice it to say that Hammer has never been better or had a role this rich to navigate. As for Chalamet, he’s certainly now set on a stratospheric course. The film’s final shot—one of the finest you’ll see and a rare feisty use of end credits to boot—asks a lot of him. Elio and Oliver won’t forget each other. You won’t forget them, either.
Overall: Patient, delicately-told and buoyed by strong performances from its two leads, Call Me By Your Name is a memorable love story and one of the strongest movies of the year.