Luca Guadagnino makes giddily sun-soaked movies, full of beautiful people swimming and sunning and eating passion fruits, and they’re enjoyable first of all on a purely sensual level; you just wanna go hang out in them. But they’re never just about pleasure – in fact, they’re often more concerned with the fall-out from it. His latest, Call Me By Your Name, is an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel, set (per the on-screen text) “somewhere in Northern Italy” in the summer of 1983. (Guadagnino thankfully chooses not to be obnoxious about that setting; a few popped collars and carefully placed music cues put it across.)
It’s something of a summer of love for Elio, the 17-year-old son of an American professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). He’s played by Timothée Chalamet, also currently seen as the awful second boyfriend in Lady Bird, whose performance here convincingly captures the not-quite-kid-not-quite-adult awkwardness of this age. Elio is a smart but bored teen who is immediately fascinated, though he’s not quite sure why, by Oliver (Armie Hammer), the graduate student who comes to stay with them for the summer. “He seems very confident,” Elio notes, in a tone that’s not altogether complimentary, and he’s initially quite prickly towards “the usurper” who’s taken over his bedroom.
Not that Oliver notices. He’s quite a piece of work, this one; casually shirtless all the time, cheerfully informal, and prone to little dance breaks that are charmingly bereft of self-consciousness. Somewhere deep in Elio, in a place he doesn’t really understand yet, a thick stew of attraction, jealously, and resentment comes to a boil, and soon they’re speaking to each other in coded language and loaded silences. The push-pull of their longing and flirtation is basically the third character of the middle section – “I want to be good,” Oliver insists, all but clinching that they will soon be bad.
Call Me By Your Name is a sexy movie, and one with something for damn near everyone – if not in the precise combinations, than in its portrayal of how carnal desire can simply become an inescapable, all-encompassing fact of one’s existence. Yet it’s not too solemn about this stuff either; witness the kindness and good humor of Elio’s very short first sex scene, or the playfulness with which he and Oliver literally play footsie at a key moment.
The wise script (by James Ivory, who most art film fans still think of as half of the Howard’s End-making duo) knows that sex is complicated, intimacy even more so, and sometimes it just turns you inside out. Good people are capable of both hurting and being hurt; when the young woman Elio has toyed with all summer asks him, simply, “Am I your girl?” his inability to answer is utterly heartbreaking. But he forges a simple and unsentimental goodbye of his own soon enough, and then realizes he’s maybe not such a grown-up after all.
Hammer’s is the kind of performance that’s easy to undervalue; he embodies this handsome smooth-talker so convincingly, you might miss the complexity underneath. His nuances are all in his offhand moments, and he doesn’t get a big spotlight speech the way Stulbarg does. Not that the latter actor treats it that way; his is a modest, lived-in performance, so he underplays his big scene, and beautifully. He doesn’t have to reach – the simple yet stinging wisdom and truth of his words, and the little gleam in his eye as he delivers them, seals the deal.
Occasional stumbles break Guadagnino’s spell: the lyrics of Sufjan Stevens’s original songs are just a touch on the nose, the women are mostly underdeveloped, and the “tasteful” pan to the window as their first encounter gets underway seems like a tiny bit of a cop-out, a leftover convention of another era. But that’s niggling; this is a lovely, contemplative, heartrending piece of work, up to and including its modest yet understated closing scene, which reminded me of The Ice Storm’s – portraying, as it does, the simple yet powerful act of a person allowing themselves an emotional release. It sounds small, but it has more genuine force than a hundred scenes of Marvel movie urban destruction.
“Call Me By Your Name” is out Friday in limited release.