* * * * 1/2
Timothée Chalamet gives a superb, award-deserving performance as a seventeen-year-old “Jewish French Italian American” young man falling in love for the first time in Luca Guadagnino’s sensuous, languid, romantic and beautifully crafted Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet himself is American/French, speaks French fluently, and spent his summers as a boy in France, so his casting here represents a kind of divine providence. He is the right actor in the right role at the right time and he nails it.
He plays Elio, who lives in a gorgeous villa in Lombardia, Italy with his parents and a couple of household staff. Each summer his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hosts a research assistant; this year – 1983 – it is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a brashly confident American scholar. Over the summer, Elio and Oliver fall in love.
This isn’t Brokeback Vineyard. Oliver and Elio are not – at least, on the surface – fumbling, self-hating deniers, and they’re untroubled by any tangible outside dangers, including bigotry. Indeed, they are both cool. Oliver enchants the whole town with his rather astounding physical presence but his cool goes deeper than that; it’s in how he walks, how he wears the subtly brilliant period-specific summer clothing. He’s deeply dorky when he dances ‘80s-style, but that just somehow adds to his cool. Likewise, Chalamet’s Elio starts the film awkwardly but Oliver awakens some inner cool within him, and soon he’s smoking cigarettes as suavely as the older man.
It is incredibly pleasant to spend a couple of hours with characters as unashamedly smart as this. It is rare these days to find English-speaking characters who revel in the pleasures of intellectual discussion, who celebrate each other’s braininess. Languages in this household freely intermingle and people lie down and read to each other; poets and philosophers are quoted and questioned. It feels like a universe away, a better place, and a most wonderful one for these two smart, intriguing people to come together.
The film feels too long for its story, which, while it may contain multitudes of feeling and intimate detail, is essentially a simple one. But it is charming in spades, and, as captured in Chalamet’s performance, an essential addition to the coming-of-age canon. The final shot lodges it there with amazing grace. And we need the time, perhaps, to fully get to know these people. Chalamet’s Elio is the focus of the story and carries the movie, but Hammer’s Oliver is devilishly complicated, layered with nuance and far more vulnerability than first suggested; Hammer plays him perfectly – again, the right role for the right actor at the right time, superbly cast and directed.
This is a film that stays with you. Its mood, its heart and its characters have been tickling my brain since seeing it. It feels nourishing and generous, like a meal that was delicious and has turned out to have ongoing health benefits. It’s briefly altered my perception of the world, reminding me that there is decency out there, somewhere. And I daresay, if I was a gay teenager right now, or even just a teenager, this would be the movie I needed. It may be one of those films that change many thousands of young lives for the better. For many, it will become a favourite, a classic, even a life-saver. It is sublime.