Call Me by Your Name is a gay love story without the angst, struggle, campiness, social comment, or outright tragedy that we have come to expect from gay love stories. This, I think, is a sign of some progress, because by this time a majority of the straight educated public has come to accept the humanity of gay people, although it seems a shame to even have to say this.
Here’s the story. Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet, is a 17-year-old whose father is an American archaeologist and whose mother is a beautiful Italian intellectual. It’s 1983, and they’re spending the summer at a lovely rustic house in northern Italy that the mother inherited. Elio spends his time reading, playing piano and guitar, and fooling around with local girls, as you might expect. Into their lives comes a 24-year-old doctoral student named Oliver (played by Armie Hammer) who stays with the family for a few weeks as an assistant to the father in a project involving some recently discovered Greek statuary. Oliver is handsome and self-confident; his habit of saying “later” instead of “goodbye” annoys Elio, but his curiosity and lack of guile is appealing. Gradually we see that Elio is becoming more and more attracted to Oliver, but is naturally hesitant to declare himself.
The screenplay for Call Me by Your Name is adapted by the great veteran filmmaker James Ivory from a novel by André Aciman. The picture is directed by Luca Guadagnino, who likes to tell stories against stunning pictorial backgrounds. His two best known features—I Am Love and A Bigger Splash—were good, but kind of over-the-top. This one is steady, almost contemplative, but always engaging. The environment in which the characters get to behave—swimming, dancing, bicycling through a nearby town, eating delicious meals outside, and so on—is absolutely idyllic. There’s more than a bit of wealth and privilege on display here, and I couldn’t help but think that this makes gay romance an easier path than it would otherwise be. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that there’s no tension at all—Oliver and Elio have to be circumspect; they can’t come together out in the open. And everyone else seems blissfully unaware of what’s going on.
Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar do fine supporting work as the parents. Stuhlbarg, who, by the way, appears in three of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees (I wonder if that’s a record), has one great scene where he gets to play the father everyone wishes they had. Armie Hammer shows a lot of range and intelligence in the difficult role of the older man pursued by Elio. But it is 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet who is the revelation here. Shallowness is an occupational hazard for actors playing teenagers, but Chalamet’s Elio has so many different sides—hip, vulnerable, overconfident, naïve, passionate, funny, painfully smart—emerging with amazing ease and rapidity, often within the same scene, that one is utterly captured by his depth and complexity.
The love story resembles most romantic tales about this time of life. The film captures the bliss of new feelings, the magic of certain moments, the wish that this day would never end. The title Call Me by Your Name refers to a fond term of affection in which lovers pretend to switch identities, just because they feel so at one with each other. It’s a pleasure well shared by this beautiful film.