Call Me by Your Name

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The crown movie jewel of 2017, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is a masterpiece of first love and heartbreak and an immediate classic, one of the best pictures ever made about the coming of age of a teenaged boy and of such ravishing beauty it almost makes your heart stop.

Guadagnino, the Italian auteur behind 2009’s high-style, Visconti-influenced family melodrama I Am Love, with Tilda Swinton as the matriarch of a wealthy industrialist family who discovered an unexpected passion, and 2015’s ripe paen to island bohemia A Bigger Splash (also starring Swinton), has finally delivered a picture that matches his visual and aural gifts with a narrative of equal riches. Guadagnino has always been a master stylist—a high-art purveyor of couture, cuisine, scents and atmospheres—and now he is a master storyteller.

Working from a screenplay by the great James Ivory from the 2009 novel by Andre Aciman, Guadagnino has delivered nothing short of an all-timer, a picture whose remarkable sensitivity and nuanced observances of love and family rank amongst the greats, calling to mind, at times, Rohmer and Bertolucci. And it stands with their best.

Picture begins during a lazy 1983 summer in the bucolic north of Italy, where an American antiquities academic, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbag), his French wife, Annella (Amira Cassar), and their teenaged son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) have settled into the family’s country villa.

Seventeen-year-old Elio, a precocious prodigy of sorts who speaks English, French and Italian and can both write and interpret music, spends his days pouring over books when not courting boredom or his budding attraction to a local French girl (Esther Garrell).

But the arrival of American grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) sets Elio on edge. Oliver, Perlman’s summer intern, is one of those classic interlopers who comes into a settled family and shakes up the household, a sort of benevolent and more accessible Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s 1969 Milanese mystery Teorema, and someone whose presence will irrevocably alter the stasis, particularly for Elio.

Elio gives up his room to the stranger, who immediately puts him off with a brash, confident manner—Oliver happens to be impossibly handsome, well-studied and endlessly articulate, quickly winning over the household and their small community of extended friends. Like Elio, Oliver is also Jewish, wearing a Star of David necklace. Elio is more conservative: “My mother says we are Jews of discretion.” But it isn’t long before he’s wearing one of his own.

“You’ll grow to love him,” Professor Perlaman assures. “What if I grow to hate him?” It turns out that father does know best, Elio first intrigued, then infatuated with Oliver, making a headlong rush into the feverish, consuming dynamics of first love, depicted by the revelatory Chalamet as a secret of personal liberation without shame or self-consciousness.

Not that Elio doesn’t undergo some identity confusion during the film’s carefully calibrated first hour as he closely observes the object of his growing desire, a virile Adonis who excels on both the volleyball court and dance floor (credit to Guadagnino for a superb use of The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way) while beginning to develop his own tête-à-tête with a local girl.

But once Elio and Oliver begin to bond over interpretations of classical music and literature amidst the enchanting idyll of the Italian countryside—bike rides across sun-drenched fields, early morning swims in the local pond and alfresco lunches and coffees—something starts to transpire.

As played with astonishing tenderness by Chalamet, Elio, caught up in a storm of new feelings, exists in a precious moment we all know—the craving to spend every waking moment next to the person who gives you what no one else has, or can—and this need and want to be loved is palpable in his performance.

In a beautifully directed scene using a town square war monument as a line of demarcation between the men that forces a surprising confession, Elio ventures his feelings—keep in mind that this is 1983, in the north of Italy—and his directness in this context seems positively brave.

For twenty-four-year-old Oliver, the slightly more secure and experienced of the two, their relationship comes as a surprise, though with no less commitment. And one of this movie’s great strengths is the way Hammer, a movie golden boy always on the perpetual verge of stardom and who until now had not delivered on the promise shown in The Social Network nearly a decade ago, so believably conveys in Oliver’s initial strength, then his vulnerability as he gives in to feelings he initially chooses to suppress.

When consummation finally arrives to release Elio’s pent-up frustration and longing, the midnight love scene has a near galvanic force. Chalamet, arms flailing about in a push-pull conundrum of hesitation and self-actualization, throws himself into the moment. The resulting image of the lanky, awkward young man embracing his stronger, more stoic paramour, is a moonlit moment of immense feeling.

The second act of Call Me by Your Name is an evocative amour fou on the elemental force of first love as told in stolen kisses, romps across the countryside, late night entanglements and the celebrated scene where a peach becomes a carnal object.

Credit Guadagnino’s voluptuously inviting aesthetic in conspiring to seduce the pair with sun, sensuality, food, music and wine—and succeeding at bring us, as well, into this world of extravagant abandon. Credit should also be given to a pair of hypnotic original songs by artist Sufjan Stevens.

It should be noted that Guadagnino has stated his picture is about compassion and family, and indeed both parents are aware of the budding friendship between their son and protégé, and their unspoken, open arms of acceptance—including a beautiful scene where father, mother and son lay together on a sofa quoting literature—provide a comforting portrait of a utopian familial ideal.

This leads us to the picture’s penultimate piece of writing between father and son, where Professor Perlman consoles a heartbroken Elio with a moving, philosophical monologue about the necessity of feelings and risks, which deepens the picture and, as delivered by Stuhlbarg, is the movie scene of 2017. We just don’t hear dialogue like this in the movies anymore.

Star and certain Oscar nominee Chalamet, a relative newcomer with credits including Interstellar and a stint on TV’s Homeland, stands at the very top of the year’s best movie performances with a remarkably fresh portrait of a teen discovering himself and the world. Free of any apparent technique (though he did learn Italian for the film) and able to deliver emotion directly and honestly, he delivers Call Me by Your Name, the year’s very best movie. The rules dictate that with first love must come heartbreak, and it comes down like a torrent in picture’s final scenes, including Chalamet’s exquisite, closing-credits coda, a haunting thing of beauty.

Unmissable.

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