Call Me By Your Name review – gorgeous gay love story seduces and overwhelms

Set during an endless Italian summer, this ravishing drama starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet is imbued with a sophisticated sensuality

The debt to pleasure is deferred in exquisite style for this ravishingly beautiful movie set in Northern Italy in the early 80s: a coming-of-age love story between a precocious teenage boy and a slightly older man. Their summer romance is saturated with poetic languor and a deeply sophisticated sensuality.

The film is directed by Luca Guadagnino (who made I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) and adapted from the novel by André Aciman by James Ivory, who had originally been slated to co-direct and has a producer credit. Ivory’s presence inevitably calls to mind his film version of EM Forster’s Maurice, to which this is frankly superior. For me, it brought back Alan Hollinghurst novels such as The Folding Star and The Spell. Call Me By Your Name is an erotic pastoral that culminates in a quite amazing speech by Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the boy’s father. It’s a compelling dramatic gesture of wisdom, understanding and what I can only call moral goodness.

Stuhlbarg plays Perlman, a middle-aged American professor of classical antiquity living with his stylish wife Annella (Amira Casar), in a handsome Italian house with their son, Elio – a remarkable performance from Timothée Chalamet – who is a very talented musician, spending his time transcribing Schoenberg and composing piano variations on JS Bach. Theirs is a cultured household, in which everyone is proficient in English, French, Italian and, for Annella, German. The family is also Jewish. Elio calls them “Jews of discretion”, a sense of otherness that is to serve as a metaphor for concealed sexuality.

Elio slopes and mopes about the huge house as the long hot summer commences, grumpy and moody, not knowing what to do with himself or his directionless sexuality, shooing away flies, frowning over paperbacks, dressed mostly in nothing more than shorts, all shoulder blades and hairless calves. Every year, his dad invites a favoured grad student to spend the summer with the family to help him with research. This year it is the impossibly handsome and statuesque Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, who never wears a pair of long trousers in the entire film. He establishes his academic credentials early on by presuming to correct Perlman’s derivation of the word “apricot”. Both Elio and Oliver are to have romantic associations with local young women, but it is more than clear where this is heading. And when the main event arrives, Guadagnino’s camera wanders tactfully away from their bed, gazing thoughtfully out of the window at the hot summer night.

A life of leisure … from left, Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.
A life of leisure … from left, Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Photograph: AP

What is perhaps so incredible is the concept of leisure, a cousin to pleasure, pure gorgeous indolence and sexiness for six whole weeks. No one appears to have very much to do in the way of dreary work, despite the references to typing up pages and cataloguing slides. People sunbathe; they impetuously jump up and go swimming, have unhurried meals al fresco, cycle into town to drink in bars, or play volleyball. The main work-related activity is when Perlman and Oliver go to inspect a sensational discovery: parts of a classical statue recovered from a lake. Hellenic sensuality is resurrected in concert with the not-so-secret sexual tumult emerging all about.

At any one time, nothing is happening, and everything is happening. Elio and Oliver will catch each other’s eye in their adjoining bedrooms or downstairs in the hall; they will casually notice each other changing into swimming costumes. Each of these intensely realised, superbly controlled and weighted moments is as gripping as a thriller. Hammer’s Oliver is worldlier than Elio, but not a roué or a cynic; in an odd way, Elio is more cosmopolitan than Oliver. The visiting American looks like a mix of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf.

Chalamet’s performance as Elio is outstanding, especially in an unbearably sad sequence, when he has to ring his mum from a payphone and ask to be driven home. (In that scene, Guadagnino contrives to show an old lady fanning herself in the right-hand side of the frame. Was she an actor? A non-professional who just happened to be there? Either way, there is a superb rightness to it.) And then there is Stuhlbarg’s speech advising against the impulse to cauterise or forget pain: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30.” There is such tenderness to this film. I was overwhelmed by it.

• This article was amended on 31 October 2017. An earlier version misspelled Amira Casar’s surname as Cesar.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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