In Luca Guadagnino’s sensitive, sensual Call Me By Your Name, a bright teenage boy living in the picturesque Italian countryside falls into a passionate summer fling with an older man, the American graduate student who’s come to study for the season. That’s about all there is to the story, a tale of gradual seduction adapted by James Ivory, one half of the costume-drama power duo Merchant & Ivory, from a novel by André Aciman. Paced like an especially lazy summer, the film sidesteps conflict and subplot, devoting nearly all of its languid two hours and change to the tractor beam of mutual attraction, as its lovers-to-be trade signs, flirtatious gestures, furtive glances, stolen touches, and loaded squabbles. They dance around each other, sometimes literally, and the film is a kind of dance, too: that agonizing, exciting waltz of uncertain courtship—of two people orbiting one another, feeling out the feelings between them, dropping and interpreting clues, inching ever closer together.
Set over six of the warmer weeks of 1983, Call Me By Your Name ignites a spark immediately, with 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) looking down from his bedroom as Oliver (Armie Hammer) steps out of a car and into his life. Elio’s parents, American archeology professor Lyle (Michael Stuhlbarg) and European translator Annella (Amira Casar), have invited this strapping adonis to stay for a portion of the summer at their gorgeous Northern Italian villa. Elio, a multilingual musical prodigy with a voracious appetite for reading, initially expresses impatience with his new housemate, the confident, cosmopolitan hunk sleeping in the room next door. (A source of supposed irritation: the stranger’s habit of bidding adieu with a very American “later.”) But to anyone with eyes, it’s clear that Elio covets Oliver’s attention and respect, and his feigned dislike of the visiting student blossoms quickly into an infatuation.
Biking around the scenic backdrop together, Elio and Oliver forge a fast friendship, but there’s a more-than-platonic charge to their interactions. Call Me By Your Name unfolds as a series of games, coded conversations, and subtle invitations: Oliver briefly, casually allowing Elio to catch him undressing, before the two go for a swim; Elio showing off for Oliver at the piano, playfully demonstrating his virtuosic talent; exploratory physical contact masked as affectionate roughhousing and camaraderie. Though both entertain the advances of smitten local girls, Elio even entering into a fledgling relationship with the alluring Marzia (Esther Garrel, of the French filmmaking family), these dalliances are a roundabout form of flirtation—just the two using romantic buffers to trigger each other’s emotions.
The potential for a tryst hangs heavily in the humid Mediterranean air; every look and line of dialogue drips with subtext. But Call Me By Your Name’s erotic tension wouldn’t crackle so loudly without the chemistry between its leads. The big discovery here is Chalamet, who projected a very different strain of wise-beyond-his-years teenage pretension in this autumn’s Lady Bird. Here, he conveys a relatable mix of performative self-confidence and transparent self-consciousness, capturing the embryonic emotional state of late adolescence nearly as expertly as Saoirse Ronan did in that complementary coming-of-age triumph. It’s a highly physical performance, the young star expressing his itchy longing through every twist and lunge of his beanstalk frame. Hammer, meanwhile, in his most magnetic turn since The Social Network, harnesses his impeccably chiseled physique and supernova charm to breathe life into an impossible crush object: the brainy, aloof heartthrob of Elio’s wildest dreams.
Guadagnino, Italian cinema’s showboating sightseer, has called this the third in an unofficial trilogy on desire, concluding a run of romantic dramas set against the lush, balmy beauty of his country’s most tourist-friendly regions. But Call Me By Your Name is more stylistically restrained than I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, and a whole lot more invested in the interior lives of its characters. There’s motivation, this time, behind every camera movement, Guadagnino blocking his photogenic stars in a way that speaks to their often unspoken wants. When Elio and Oliver finally break the ice on what’s really happening between them, their tentative negotiation happens in a long, unbroken take, standing on opposite sides of a small park and a large statue—they’re so close, but caution and propriety still holds them apart. And while Call Me By Your Name leans heavily on some gentle, mood-setting original compositions from Sufjan Stevens, Guadagnino still knows how to execute a superb needle drop, like the scene where Elio starts to realize how he really feels, watching Oliver dance without inhibition to “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs.
Call Me By Your Name embodies a certain intimate and very French ideal of character drama: There are traces of Maurice Pialat’s sexual-awakening classic À Nos Amours (released the same year this movie is set) and of the winsome, sun-dappled, wine-and-dine gabfests of Eric Rohmer. The major distinction is that Guadagnino is examining a same-sex love affair, and without fuss. Elio and Oliver are incognito about their rendezvouses (one scene finds them resisting the urge to kiss in public), but the film never creates an aura of danger or even really taboo around their relationship; if homophobia exists in this idyllic rural paradise, we don’t see it—especially not from Elio’s parents, who perhaps understand the nature of their son’s new bond better than he initially does. As for the age difference, the film is decidedly non-judgmental, which is not to say that Guadagnino doesn’t grasp the power imbalance between his characters: However intellectually equal the two may be, Oliver holds the cards in this whirlwind love affair between a confident twentysomething and a teenager so hormonally tortured that he finds a... novel new utility for apricot, in a scene that almost plays like a highbrow answer to American Pie.
The symbolism threatens at times to get a little too on-the-nose, as everything from Lyle’s excavated artwork to the stories Annella reads her son comment on what Elio is experiencing. Then again, when you’re young and infatuated, the whole world does seem to revolve around you and your feelings. Graced with beautiful landscapes, bodies, and language, Call Me By Your Name has the glow of romantic wish-fulfillment: Imagine, it says, if the older, unobtainable object of your affection—viewed from a distance, just beyond reach, as Hammer is so often filmed here—actually reciprocated that affection. But if the film is a fantasy, it’s a bittersweet one, buoyed by a plea from a father enjoining his son—in an ambiguous, show-stopping monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg—to embrace the joy and the heartache of first love. By the time Oliver is dancing to “Love My Way” again, the ephemerality of his life-changing presence has really sunk in. There is no such thing as an endless summer.