The story begins at the 17th century Northern Italian villa of archaeology professor Samuel Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s 1983 and each year he invites a graduate student to spend the summer cataloguing his discoveries. This year it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American as confident as he is good looking. “What do you do around here?” he asks Elio (Timothée Chalamet), Perlman’s “Heart of Darkness”-reading, classical pianist 17-year-old son. “Wait for the summer to end,” comes the answer.
This summer is different, however. While dating a pretty local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio experiences a sexual awakening as he develops feelings for the older Oliver. The two begin a relationship, at first playfully antagonistic, later deeply and unabashedly romantic. Ripe with the bloom of first love Elio is devastated when Oliver returns to the United States, left an emotional wreck. Enter Professor Perlman with an empathetic speech that brings with it comfort but no easy answers.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a movie of small details that speak to larger truths. Director Luca Guadagnino keeps the story simple relying on the minutiae to add depth and beauty to the story. The idyllic countryside, the quaint town, the music of the Psychedelic Furs and the languid pace of a long Italian summer combine to create the sensual backdrop against which the romance between the two blossoms. Guadagnino’s camera captures it all, avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama to present a story that is pure emotion. It feels real and raw, haunted by the ghosts of loves gone by.
Chalamet, who impressed in “Lady Bird” earlier this year, nails the balance between joy and lovelorn, delivering a performance that bridges the gap between hormonal teenager and emotionally charged adult. The film’s final shot, a sustained close-up on Elio’s face in the grips of the realization that he may never see Oliver again, is a window into the soul of heartbreak.
Hammer, whose towering frame and handsome face suggest a typical leading man, delivers a career best performance. Toggling between brash and beatific, he brings sensitivity to the role and isn’t simply set dressing or an object of obsession.
With Chalamet and Hammer in the leads the movie is an extended two-hander but near the end Stuhlbarg delivers an “if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out” speech that is worth the price of admission.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a lot of things. It’s part travelogue—you’ll want to jump on a plane for Italy right away—part coming of age story, part romance, but, best of all, it is respectful. It is respectful of Elio’s experience and the residual feelings left behind.