At the end of a long bleak autumn that barely bothered to arrive—the leaves where I live merely withered, turned brown at the edges, and fell off the trees as if giving up—Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name arrives like the gift of a jar of summer fruit preserved lovingly by hand. Apricots or peaches, probably. Both fruits play key roles in this summer romance set in bucolic northern Italy, the first for its complex multilingual etymology, the second for its less abstract properties (there’s a reason the peach emoji has become text-message shorthand for a booty call). Call Me By Your Name will be described and perhaps marketed as a queer love story, and it does break ground in that domain. But like Moonlight and Carol before it, this lushly shot and emotionally extravagant film is above all a love story, tout court. (Does that incursion of a French phrase into an American movie review strike you as pretentious? Then you may not like Call Me By Your Name, an unabashedly language-loving movie whose characters switch freely among English, Italian, and French, discuss Heidegger, and quote from Montaigne.)
Adapted from the 2007 novel by André Aciman, with a screenplay by James Ivory in collaboration with Guadagnino and the editor Walter Fasano, Call Me By Your Name unfolds with a languor and attention to sensory detail that at first suggests we might be watching a psychological thriller in The Talented Mr. Ripley vein. Surely all this shimmering sunlight and barely repressed eroticism is covering up a sinister plot to murder someone and steal their identity? But as gradually becomes clear, the only identity theft in Call Me By Your Name is the joyously mutual exchange described in the title, in which Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) agree, in a moment of passion, to make their own names their secret nicknames for each other.
Let’s not rush to that place, though. The movie doesn’t, and it’s the time it takes getting there that makes their connection feel so palpable. It’s the summer of 1983 and Oliver, a 24-year-old American grad student, is in Italy for a six-week internship with Elio’s father, an eminent American archaeologist and art historian his assistant addresses only as “Professor Perlman” (a never-better Michael Stuhlbarg, who nearly steals the movie in one late scene). Elio, who’s 17, is the precocious only child of the professor and his Italian wife Annella (Amira Casar), who’s inherited the sweet 17th-century villa where the family spends their summers. By day, Oliver and the professor catalog slides of classical sculpture, most of them nudes in gracefully provocative poses; in the evening, there are lazy swims in the nearby river, al fresco meals under the fruit trees, and dance parties with the village girls.
In fact, Elio has a girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel), who’s hung out with him for many summers running and seems more than game for the two to lose their virginity together this year. But like much of the rest of the town, Elio is bedazzled by the arrival of the golden boy Oliver, who’s handsome enough to put those Greek statues to shame and laid-back to the point of cockiness, with a degree of comfort in his own body that the self-conscious Elio both covets and resents.
Showing this swoony houseguest around town, Elio eventually blurts out the secret of his attraction. The cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Arabian Nights), films this confession in an elegantly choreographed long take in which the two men are separated by a monument in a public square, their faces visible to each other but not to us. The framing says it all: This affair, if it happens, will have to take place obliquely, out of sight.
Though it’s not clear whether Oliver has ever had a same-sex encounter before, he’s obviously more versed in affairs of the heart than his mentor’s experience-hungry son, and he takes a while to respond to Elio’s advances, whether because of moral reservations or a fear of getting caught. When they do finally hook up, though, the young men’s relationship is tacitly sanctioned by Elio’s parents, who suggest he accompany Oliver on a pleasure trip in the last few days before the internship ends. A pleasure trip is exactly what they proceed to take, hiking flower-strewn mountainsides and drunkenly dancing to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” in a near-empty piazza. But it’s a pain trip, too, as the lovers’ most euphoric days together give way to their inevitable end-of-summer goodbye.
Guadagnino’s previous two films, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, combined highly wrought surfaces with love stories of operatic intensity. (It’s no coincidence that the movie he co-directed was a documentary on Bernardo Bertolucci.) Call Me By Your Name takes place in a quieter, more naturalistic register. It’s a pastoral fairy tale with a moral lesson hidden inside, very much in the mode of an Eric Rohmer comedy. Filmed in luminous 35mm, as attentive to the colors and sounds of nature as it is to the beauty of art, architecture, and yes, Armie Hammer, this is the kind of movie you live in as much as watch. Some of its images—Hammer’s Oliver dancing with unselfconscious abandon, Chalamet’s face in extended close-up in the stunning final shot—stay with you afterward like memories of your own half-remembered romance.
It’s a tricky time for the release of an achingly erotic May–June love story, with the country roiled by daily revelations of sexual abuse and arguments about what constitutes exploitation of power and what constitutes consent. Elio and Oliver aren’t that far apart in years, but the years that separate them are formative ones, and at least in some parts of the country from which they both hail during the academic year, their fling would be against the law. (In Italy, where the age of consent is 14, it’s not.) I can’t say I would be as casual as the Perlmans if my 17-year-old got involved with my twentysomething research assistant. But the attraction between the two young men is nothing if not consensual and so slow to develop—fully an hour of screen time has passed before that confession in the public square—that no one could accuse either participant of not proceeding with care.
In the end, the viewer doesn’t worry for Elio’s long-term emotional well-being because, thanks to Chalamet’s breathtakingly detailed and intimate performance, we know exactly who this kid is, what he desires, and how much he is and isn’t ready for. He captures the gawky neediness of adolescence, but also its exuberant flights of intellectual, emotional, and sexual self-discovery. Elio has things to learn from Oliver but also things to teach him, and watching the two learn from each other—up to and including the hard lesson of how to let go—is one of the great cinematic pleasures of the year.