The most exquisite film of the year, Call Me By Your Name understands that one of the most difficult parts of navigating queerness is that we’re not born fluent in its language.
Most of us hold ourselves back from exploring our real feelings, and if we do, it’s under the veil of extreme discretion.
This sumptuous, sensory romance imagines two men in different phases of this adolescence.
17 year old Elio (the extraordinary Timothée Chalamet) holidays with his parents in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983, as he does most summers and many holidays.
His father, Samuel (Michael Stuhlbarg), is an archaeology professor and art historian, and every year he recruits an American graduate student to serve as his research assistant.
Enter Oliver (Armie Hammer), an immediate object of fascination for Elio. As statuesque, sturdy and mysterious as a redwood, Oliver departs conversations with an all-American, “Later!”
Elio is simultaneously repulsed and compelled by Oliver’s detachment, and angles to spend as much time cycling the countryside with Oliver as possible.
Both young men hazard relationships with young women from the area, further confusing Elio’s view of Oliver’s feelings towards him.
To call Call Me By Your Name a gay romance would be to ignore the fluidity that functions as discovery for Elio, and perhaps distraction for Oliver.
Elio learns that Oliver has been resisting temptation, but Elio’s pursuit sends them stumbling gorgeously towards an intense intimacy, trapped in the sticky amber of the summer months.
Based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name was adapted by legendary screenwriter James Ivory to elegant effect.
Subsequently, the film is – for lack of a better word – less horny than the novel, which, despite its author’s heterosexuality, understands the delirious mixture of ecstasy and sin that constitutes early experiences of same-sex attraction.
If director Luca Guadagnino and Ivory, both gay, forsake this more extreme eroticism, it’s not at the expense of the narrative’s power; it’s merely a refocusing of the material’s core thrust.
It allows the adaptation to feel impressively true to the original text, while distinguishing the film as a specific pleasure of its own.
If the setting and characters feel a bit bourgeois, it’s not without intent. The film makes the point that no amount of wordliness will necessarily make learning the language of queer desire any easier.
Elio, who is multilingual and spends time transcribing classical music, has intermingled intellectual and sexual frustration as a result.
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver asks Elio.
“If only you knew how little I know about the things that matter,” Elio responds.
“What things that matter?”
“You know what things.”
The film is stunning to look at as shot by fantastic Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who trades in a naturalism that makes you feel you could reach out and run your hands through the grass that dominates the film’s landscapes.
But the triumph of the film is its performances. Hammer does his best work to date conveying Oliver’s resistance to, and eventual rejection of, his repression, finally allowing himself the heady indulgence of reciprocating Elio’s advances.
Stuhlbarg provides an anchor, looking on at these proceedings with an air that could be knowing or just paternal.
The screenplay allows him an all-timer of a scene towards the end of the film, in which Stuhlbarg gracefully delivers a monologue of heart-wrenching openness. It would read as wish fulfillment were it not performed with such delicate authenticity.
“Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot,” he tells Elio.
Amira Casar delivers palpable maternal warmth as Elio’s mother Annella, and Esther Garrel embodies the bittersweet awkwardness of an unrequited crush as Marzia.
But the film belongs to Chalamet, whose work as Elio is a pure revelation. Everything from the movement of his eyes to the still-developing clumsiness of his body makes you feel, and relate, and sympathise.
The final scene of the film is an extended close-up of Chalamet’s face as he stares into the fire, the light from the flames dancing across his face alongside his processing of all the overwhelming, raw emotion developed throughout his relationship with Oliver.
As the scene plays with credits rolling next to Elio, Sufjan Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” – one of two original songs Stevens wrote for the film along with “Mystery of Love” – washes over the audience, like a poignant reflection on the past.
At its fundament, Call Me By Your Name is a film about finding your nature, in large part through nature.
The peach – one of the major symbols of both book and film – represents, in part, this unspoiled beauty, so often found in secret.
A beauty like that of Call Me By Your Name cannot be denied, and its secret must be shared.
Advance screenings of Call Me By Your Name take place in select cities on December 23 & 24 ahead of a national release on December 26.