American movies that deal frankly with sexuality are mostly sniggering comedies or tales of dark obsession. We’re not used to movies portraying sexual exploration as a normal part of growing up, without a lot of moral and religious Sturm und Drang weighing it all down. Which is one reason the much-lauded, coming-of-age drama, Call Me By Your Name, has such a European feel to it—and the fact that this international co-production is directed by Italian Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash), and set in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy.
Scripted by the great James Ivory (veteran director of classics like A Room With a View and Howard’s End), from a 2007 novel by Italian-American writer André Aciman, Call Me By Your Name follows the relationship between the 17-year-old son of a globe-trotting academic, and the 24-year-old American grad student hired as his father’s research assistant. Evolving over six weeks of a hot, lazy, Italian summer in 1983, the story explores physical attraction, yearning, and romantic attachment in ways viewers of all sexual orientations can understand.
The protagonist is Elio (a star-making performance by Timothée Chalamet, last seen in Lady Bird). Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), of Jewish and mixed-European extraction, is an American archaeology professor who moves the family to a 17th-century villa every summer to study fragments of ancient Greek statuary that periodically wash up on the local shore. Elio’s upbringing is culturally rich; English, French and Italian are spoken in the house, his mother (Amira Casar) reads them fairy tales in German, and his parents’ friends are critics and historians.
Elio reads a lot, but he’s not necessarily shy or bookish. He has friends among the local teens, mostly girls with whom he flirts and experiments. But it’s an event of seismic proportions when his father’s new summer research assistant arrives. Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a brash, handsome American, self-possessed and confident. “Later,” he chirps whenever he’s about to take off somewhere. All the village girls instantly fall in love with him.
Elio, too, is fascinated. But as relatively sophisticated as he is for his years, his ever more complicated feelings for Oliver are unchartered territory for him. They become friends, as Elio tours Oliver around the village on their bikes and introduces him around. But the timeless torture of trying to decipher if his feelings are reciprocated, what to do about it if they are, and how each of them should feel about it, is rendered with poignant delicacy. And the filmmakers are careful not to portray either young man as a predator; if anything, Elio is the more determined, and Oliver the more subtle and circumspect.
Also European is the movie’s slow, leisurely pace, and its unafraid depiction of the physical aspect of sexual attraction. But the focus wisely remains on Elio as he comes to terms, emotionally, with his own identity, whether slaking his urges with some very unique stimuli, or holding the screen in the final minutes (a close-up of Chalamet’s expressive face), without dialogue, as Elio makes up his mind to move on.
I had issues with the pep-talk Elio’s father gives him toward the end; it’s meant to be a moment of heroic parental support, but it feels overwritten and insincere, presuming to offer absolution Elio doesn’t seek. The Sufjan Stevens songs felt a bit overly poppy to me, too. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise thoughtful, courageous film.
(And here’s another interesting aspect of the 1983 setting: no one has a cell phone. Instead of wandering around with their eyes glued to their hands, the village teenagers are actively participating in their own lives, and the life of the community. They ride bikes, they swim, they go dancing at night in the village square. And they read; Elio and his friends are always exchanging books. If the story were set in the modern day, these kids might google “sex,” but it wouldn’t occur to them to try it.)
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
*** (out of four)
With Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Written by James Ivory. From the novel by André Aciman. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 132 minutes.