By Gregg Shapiro
Call Me by Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics), gay director Luca Guadagnino’s movie adaptation of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, with a screenplay by gay filmmaker James Ivory, couldn’t have come at a more complicated time. There’s no way to avoid the fact that the film’s central story – a sexual and romantic relationship between two young men, ages 17 and 24, is the kind of thing that keeps evangelicals up at night.
Therefore, it’s to the credit of Guadagnino and Ivory that the subject matter isn’t sensationalized, just presented in a format that is as literary as it is cinematic. Because of this, Call Me by Your Name is finding its way onto many “Best of 2017” lists, quite often near the top.
In addition to Guadagnino and Ivory, a huge chunk of the acclaim also goes to the cast, particularly the male leads Armie Hammer (who has redeemed his career in one fell swoop) and the revelatory Timothee Chalamet (who can also be seen stealing scenes in Lady Bird), both of whom are straight. Without these two gifted actors, it’s difficult to say what Call Me by Your Name would have become.
Set during the summer of 1983, “somewhere in Northern Italy”, when teen musician Elio (Chalamet) and his parents Sammy (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Annelle (Amira Casar), are welcoming a graduate student Oliver (Hammer) into their home for six weeks to assist the archaeology professor father with research. Upon the attractive Oliver’s arrival, Elio nicknames him “the usurper” (because he’ll be staying in Elio’s bedroom and they’ll be sharing a bathroom) and Elio’s father notes that Oliver is “bigger than his picture”. That’s an understatement as Oliver stands almost six and a half feet tall.
Too exhausted to join the family for dinner, Oliver makes his first official appearance at breakfast the next morning. Elio offers to show Oliver around the town after they finish eating. Elio notices the gold Star of David that Oliver wears on a chain around his neck. “Jews of discretion”, Elio tells him that, aside from his family, Oliver’s probably the only other Jew to set foot in town. From a small New England town, Oliver says he knows how it feels to be the “odd Jew out”.
Watching Elio observe Oliver, we can sense an undercurrent of attraction, but the teen is unsure how to act on it. It’s mutual, as it turns out, but Elio is initially uneasy at even the most casual physical contact with Oliver. As if to divert attention or suspicion, Elio tells his friends (all of whom think Oliver is hot) that he thinks Oliver is arrogant.
Before you know it, that façade falls away, beginning with when Olive almost walks in on Elio masturbating. They begin to spend more time together, swimming and bicycling around town. A flirty antagonism, courtesy of Elio, becomes part of the ritual. In his room, Elio scribbles mash notes about Oliver. Tension develops, but Elio calls a truce.
Call Me by Your Name effortlessly depicts the way that friendship can lead to love. Boundaries fade and the kind of intimacy that leads Elio, alone in Oliver’s room, to lie in his bed and put the older man’s his swim trunks over his head.
Their conversation becomes cryptic and then, suddenly, Elio becomes physical with Oliver, kissing him and grabbing his genitals. Eventually, they do have sex, on more than one occasion. The sex is erotic and tastefully depicted. Details, such as Oliver wiping semen from his chest, are not shied away from. There is also a post-coital reference to the title, a kind of promise made between the two
As Elio processes the experience, Oliver tells him that they haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, that he’s happy they slept together, and doesn’t want Elio to hold what happened against him, doesn’t want him to regret anything.
The experience leaves them both emotional wrecks. They lament all the wasted days and the miscommunication before they had sex. With Oliver’s departure hanging over their heads, Sammy and Annelle, who are both aware and supportive, of what’s going on with Elio and Oliver, send them off to be alone for a few days. The trip culminates with Elio and Oliver’s train station farewell.
By the end of the film, in the final scene in fact, it becomes clear that the movie belongs to Chalamet who has been receiving well-deserved praise for his performance. Remember his name come Oscar time. On a side note, Call Me by Your Name does for apricots what Portnoy’s Complaint did for raw liver. You will never look at the fruit in the same way again.
Call Me by Your Name opens on Dec. 22 in Atlanta at AMC Phipps Plaza 14, Lefont Sandy Springs and Midtown Cinemas 8. Rating: A-