Remember that summer you spent in Italy back in the 1980s? The memories are so vivid you can still taste the apricots from the orchard, hear the Italian pop songs on your transistor radio and feel the warm skin of your first love?
No? Actually, most of us have never had this experience (and if you actually have lived such a magical summer, the rest of us don’t want to hear about it). But watching Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous 1983-set romance “Call Me By Your Name” feels like you’re living inside someone else’s cherished memory, hazy but still vivid.
Adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel by 89-year-old screenwriter James Ivory (“Maurice,” “Remains of the Day”), “Call Me” looks at a summer spent by 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) in Italy in a 17th-century villa owned by his parents. Elio’s father is an American history professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), and every summer takes in a graduate student to help with his historical research.
This summer, that student is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a lanky, handsome 24-year-old. Elio is fascinating by Oliver. Both are quick-witted and clever, but Oliver has a physical ease and freedom that the introverted Elio lacks. There's a scene where Oliver is dancing to the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" and I think he's a bad dancer, flailing his arms and spinning, but he does it so confidently that I can't honestly be sure.
Elio and Oliver settle into sort of a little brother-big brother relationship at first, riding bikes around the Italian countryside, dancing with local girls at the disco, swimming in a nearby pond. These early scenes feel casual and offhand, so offhand that we might miss the growing attraction between them.
Elio and Oliver resolutely avoid talking about whatever is going on between them, communicating through subtle gestures and exchanged looks, tentative advances and immediate retreats. It’s a drawn-out dance that builds suspense (and, frankly, a little frustration).
Even when Elio finally broaches the subject obliquely with Oliver while strolling through a town square, the two keep an entire World War I memorial between them as they talk. And even then, they talk around their feelings.
Finally, Elio and Oliver consummate their desire, and “Call Me By Your Name” is both frank and poetic in its depiction of their affair. While sexually explicit at moments, “Call Me By Your Name” is more about Elio and Oliver’s journey toward being honest with each other about their feelings, to each other and to themselves.
Hammer, who has gone to being a disposal Hollywood lead (“The Lone Ranger,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) to the most handsome character actor working today, is charming and canny as Oliver. But Oliver is the object of desire, and the film really belongs to Chalamet as the desiring, conflicted Elio. Chalamet conveys the shifting layers of passion and confusion within Elio with an expression, so easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. This silent yearning culminates in the jaw-dropping single-take scene that plays over the closing credits, which focuses silently on Elio’s face as it moves through an arc of powerful emotions.
That expression of mute emotion finds its opposite with an equally powerful scene featuring Stuhlbarg delivering an epic monologue, framing Elio’s experience, as painful as it has been at times, as one he will come to cherish.
Aciman’s novel was also written as if it were a flashback, and the emphasis on memory extends to the visual look of the film. Guadagnino forgoes the usual overripe colors he used for “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” for something more muted, as if the bright colors have faded over time. Ivory’s script focuses on the little moments, the ones that end up sticking deep within our memories.
Exactly 30 years ago, Ivory’s “Maurice” dared to present a gay love story with a happy ending, in an era where even well-meaning films punished gay men for their desire. The film was seen as controversial and largely buried. In 2018, it must be gratifying for him to bring “Call Me By Your Name” to the screen, and to have it welcomed and acclaimed.