Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are lovers drawn together in Call Me By Your Name
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Timothée Chalamet (Elio Perlman), Armie Hammer (Oliver), Michael Stuhlbarg (Professor Perlman), Amira Casar (Annella Perlman), Esther Garrell (Marzia), Victoire Du Bois (Chiara)
First love is a story everyone can relate to. Call Me By Your Name unfolds an engrossing early romance, where precocious 17-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamat) discovers his bisexuality through his deep attraction to his professor father’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) summer research assistant, 24-year old Oliver (Armie Hammer). An attraction which, over a long hot summer in Northern Italy in 1983, finally leads to a deep romantic and sexual bond forming between the two.
Refreshingly, Guadagnino’s film is relentlessly positive and devoid of tension or disapproval. You’d expect a romance such as this – especially a gay one – to lead to an eventual outburst of furious disapproval from someone or tear-filled remonstrations that what the couple have isn’t wrong. These are avoided completely, for something that feels intensely real and convincingly grounded, especially as it follows Elio’s stumbling attempts to identify his own sexuality and understand how his feelings affect him.
This is also a showcase for acting, a film like this living or dying on the chemistry between the two lead actors, and Chalamet and Hammer have this in spades, suggesting from the very start a deep bond, that grows in emotional intensity. The relationship is a slow dance, with both of them blowing hot and cold at different times. Oliver’s first tentative approach is resoundingly rebuffed by Elio, only for Elio’s fascination with Oliver to grow into a deep unexpressed longing, which Oliver is nervous about responding to for a host of factors, from the age difference to his residence in Elio’s parents’ house. Even after the two come together, Elio’s confusion about his own feelings leads him to turn colder before the two finally find an equilibrium that works.
It’s also a classic coming of age story, as Elio moves out of adolescence and into adulthood. Elio never feels like a traditional teenager in the first place, a musical prodigy and talented autodidact who seems to have read nearly everything (“Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver jokingly says at one point after Elio explains the detailed history of a war memorial). But in other ways he is the same as any other teen: sex-obsessed and confused, spending a lot of time with two female friends who he seems to be unsure of his feelings are towards, indulging in explorative sexual fantasies and fumbled exploration of his own and others’ bodies, working out what he likes and what he doesn’t.
It leads to a superb performance from Chalamet (youngest ever nominee for Best Actor at the Oscars), who perfectly captures both the intelligence of Elio, and his confused lack of understanding of who or what he is. Chalamet’s body language – a mixture of awkward teen and assured adult, is a perfect physical expression of his part-adult, part-child psyche. Like any teenager, he’s at times selfish, greedy or plain annoying. But at many others he’s sensitive, delicate, vulnerable and desperate to express his love. Chalamet juggles all these competing emotions and hormonal drives brilliantly, and his face is a true instrument of expression, a sliding kaleidoscope of confused urges that compels your attention.
It’s a perfect match-up with Hammer, who is superb as just the sort of boisterous, confident, exciting and sexy presence you can imagine being drawn towards. But Hammer also laces Oliver with a tenderness, a concern and a gentleness beneath his joie de vivre that really expands the character’s soul and makes him not just a force of vibrancy but also a genuinely lovely man. Hammer is very careful (as is the film) to avoid the possibility of Oliver being seen as a seducer, and it does this by giving him a touching restraint as well as manipulation-free openness, an honesty and an emotional freeness that helps make him more often the pursued rather than the pursuer.
Guadagnino lets this gentle love story unfold over a luscious, gorgeous Italian summer, with his camera drifting contentedly around the two lovers and their environment, as much a part of the dance of their initial attraction. The film is resolutely “in the moment” and has no flashbacks, flash forwards or any real reference to any narrative events outside of what we see on screen. It unfolds gracefully and naturally, with the camera work largely taking an unflashy but still warm view on everything we see.
Guadagnino deliberately treats much of the central romance element with reserve, avoiding too much nudity and panning discretely away from sexual encounters between the two. (I will say though, that he has no such reserve with Elio’s heterosexual encounters, where female nudity and sex are shown in full.) It does successfully preserve a sense of innocence and purity in the relationship – and keeps the focus on the fact that this love between the two is about them becoming better people, who understand themselves better, through the relationship.
This positive message is reinforced by the acceptance of Elio and Oliver from all in the film, including Elio’s parents. Michael Stuhlbarg in particular has a scene near the end of the film of wonderful power – cementing his status from this film as a dream dad – with a speech to his son so full of acceptance, encouragement and love that you’ll feel your heart melt. Both Elio’s parents are very aware of the relationship and tacitly encourage it: according to this film at least, if you’re young and gay, growing up in a Bohemian, academic household does make your life easier! (Even Oliver comments that Elio has no idea how lucky he is.)
This film is also refreshing for its lack of casualties. Sure the two girls Elio and Oliver flirt with are disregarded swiftly, and the film gives only a little time to their rather shabby treatment, but generally it’s a film about learning who you are by spending time with someone else. And if that includes a few moments of teen awkward sexual exploration that are almost unbearable to watch (a scene with a curious Elio and a peach is a case in point, replete with queasy sound effects) then so be it.
Call Me By Your Name is a terrific coming-of-age tale, emotionally honest, true and mature and directed with a graceful ease and unshowy skill that is a testament to the deep confidence and grace of its director. With two superb performances and some excellent support work, it’s a glorious summer movie of love that will speak to you regardless of sexuality.