“Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.”
It’s poetry as pillow talk. At first it sounds a bit narcissistic, even pretentious. But as a besotted 17-year-old Elio and his hunky older beau Oliver groan their own names back and forth between trembling lips, it becomes a spell that binds audiences into the enchantment of their summer of love.
Based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name nestles into the summer of 1983, when a 24-year-old American academic came to stay with Elio Perlman’s intellectual family “somewhere in Northern Italy.” It’s a majestic setting with sun-kissed orchards, clear-water ponds, and—cut through green fields—crisp roads just begging for a bike to ride them. When Oliver (Armie Hammer) isn’t working on his research alongside Elio’s professor father (a warm and perfectly dad Michael Stuhlbarg), he and the teen (Timothée Chalamet) traverse to towns, pools, or hillsides. And at each and every moment, I expected they’d fall easily into each others’ arms, if only because the scenery was so beautiful that it begged to be embraced in. But this is not a smooth tale of seduction and romance.
There’s an unexpected combativeness to Oliver and Elio’s chemistry. Their attraction is undeniable, brewed between weighted glances, and the same sensuality that director Luca Guadagnino imbued to every frame of food in his SWINTON-fronted drama I am Love. Yet there’s a mutual resistance. Its motivation is never spoken, but as the pair push and pull at each other, with neck rubs, longing looks, flirtatious fingers, and finally a carnal kiss, it becomes clear. Rejection is a risk more terrifying than death. Watching Elio and Oliver grapple with this fear and their mounting affection for each other is dizzying, painful, and glorious.
Guadagnino makes movies that feel like full-body swoons. In Call Me By Your Name, want hangs as heavy as the plump peaches in the family’s orchard. As this is Elio’s story of first love, the film assumes his perspective, looking at Oliver with fascination, awe and lust. Hammer is perfectly cast as the strapping American man who is almost too smart, too handsome, too effortlessly sexy. As he plays volleyball in tiny yellow shorts, his muscular, golden body glistens. His manly voice is a low soft grumble as he frankly asks Elio, “Do you know how happy I am we slept together?” And even as he does a dopey dance in dingy white Converse sneakers, he seems divine, free and alive.
This movie feels like first love, sexy, intoxicating, and frightening. More remarkable, it rejects the idealism movies often assign such tales. Though the leads are both beautiful, their characters are racked with doubt, even in their most intimate moments. Many will speak of the sultry peach scene, where Guadagnino’s lust for food porn meets its literal conclusion. But it’s the moment after, when an embarrassed Elio fears he’s gone too far and made himself unloveable that stole my breath. His older, more mature lover does not reject him, but embraces him, and strokes his hair. Elio is allowed to be insecure and messy, because that too is a part of first love.
I’m in absolute awe of this film. The performances of Chalamet and Hammer are graceful, tender and electrifying, giving the romance bounce and body. But more astounding is how Guadagnino makes the whole thing feel tactile. Simple shots where Oliver’s fingers grace a curtain, or Elio’s strum a bed’s footboard, invite you to consider the sensation. The sticky peach juice sliding down Oliver’s fingers, or his ringlets of rich chest hair invite you to fantasize about touching both. This is a film where touch is paramount, just as taste was for I am Love. Guadagnino and his gorgeous romance not only offers a feast for your eyes, but also imagery so evocative it’ll make your heart race and your fingers tingle with the memory of sun and touches from summers past.
Call Me By Your Name plays as part of New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. It will hit theaters November 24th.