The most shocking thing about “Call Me By Your Name” is that it isn’t as shocking as you might think.
If you’ve been following the news even in passing over the last few months then you know that intergenerational gay relationships have sprung up as a kind of cultural “third rail,” but director Luca Guadagnino, armed with a screenplay adapted by James Ivory from Andre Aciman’s bestselling novel, shows no prurient interest in exploring this topic. It opens this weekend in the Washington area and is screening at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas.
“Call Me By Your Name,” which details the summer fling between a 24-year-old man and the 17-year-old son of his employer, unfolds as a sweet-spirited romantic idyll, blithely unconcerned with societal disdain and therefore at a considerable (and comfortable) remove from the current brouhaha. It’s up for three Golden Globe Awards including nods for both its leads.
Set in northern Italy in 1983, the film takes place in the home (and surrounding bucolic environs) of Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) who specializes in the study of Greco-Roman culture. Every summer, the professor hosts a learned acolyte to assist with his work; this year it’s a youthful, vigorous and handsome scholar named Oliver (Armie Hammer). This new arrival in the household catches the interest of the professor’s son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and the feeling is mutual. Though each feigns indifference, as the summer progresses their attraction becomes impossible to ignore, until it blossoms into a full-blown but secretive romance.
Again, it can’t be emphasized strongly enough how un-sensational this all is. There is none of the heavy breathing of “Brokeback Mountain” nor even the guilt-haunted caressing (and accompanying social angst) of Ivory’s gay classic, “Maurice.” When the sex finally happens, although undeniably erotic, it’s handled with a kind of staid observational academicism. Guadagnino and his actors emphasize tenderness and feeling, capturing the magic of first-time dalliance in a way that makes it seem, if not wholly innocent, at least wholesome.
Although the sex is a crucial element, it’s not all there is to “Call Me By Your Name.” More than a romance, the film is really a coming-of-age story, a key aspect that benefits greatly from Chalamet’s remarkable performance. He commits completely to revealing all the complex, contradictory impulses that accompany his rite of passage.
As for Hammer, an actor whose career has survived several misfires largely on the strength of his looks, he offers a less showy, but equally effective performance as Oliver. Introduced as an enigma, approachable yet aloof and seemingly as arrogant as he is polite, he slowly allows the layers to peel back as he lets Elio into his carefully guarded emotional inner sanctum, subtly revealing that this heady summer fling is perhaps even more of a joyful release for him than it is for his youthful lover. Though both straight, they have an electrifying chemistry, an essential component of what makes the film work.
There is also fine work from the supporting ensemble. And director Guadagnino knows his actors are key, but he doesn’t ignore the ample opportunity afforded by the picturesque Italian villa and surrounding landscape in which his film is set.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a sophisticated exploration of a situation long overdue for such expression. It’s a gay love story told without judgment and without apology.