Topping last year’s, “A Bigger Splash,” Italian director Luca Guadagnino has created nothing short of a masterpiece in adapting André Aciman’s novel of the same name. In a screenplay by James Ivory (front-runner to win the Oscar for adapted screenplay) “Call Me By Your Name” is one of the most honest coming-of-age stories I’ve ever witnessed. The entire film is anchored by relative newcomer Timothée Chalamet (“Interstellar,” “Lady Bird”), who is 20 playing a 17-year-old. His performance is one for the ages, capturing all the conflicting emotions of a teenager discovering sexuality, manhood and love, all in an unforgettable summer. It’s the best performance of the entire year. Like most Guadagnino pictures, he seduces the audience with camera angles, beautiful bodies and stunning vistas, transporting you to a specific time and place. He calls this a family film, which is an ideal way to view it. “It’s about the invisible bonds that create who we are,” Guadagnino said at a packed house at the Toronto Film Festival.
Somewhere in northern Italy, during the summer of 1983, Elio (Chalamet) is introduced to the latest international selectee, studying with his father, the professor. The tall, curt, American named Oliver (Armie Hammer) sleeps late, says inconsiderate things like “later” when leaving the dinner table. Handsome, smart and athletic, the small town, including his host family, are taken with him. Elio, tasked with showing his summer guest around, loathes the attention he’s lost to Oliver. Only when he watches Oliver out on the town, getting close to a female friend, does he realize, it’s not jealousy. “Is there anything you don’t know,” Oliver asks of Elio, who continually schools him on history and trivia. “I don’t know anything about what’s really important,” he replies. The two become nearly inseparable as friends until Elio can’t keep his feelings secret any longer. “When you least expect it, nature will find your weakest spot,” his father said.
Like most of his films, “Call Me By Your Name” is a patient, beautiful burn, the kind you never want to abandon. In a couple of hours, he gives you an entire summer of taste, smell, lust, love and loss without a single moment wasted. Guadagnino has this keen sense of portraying sexuality on-screen, the way the actors touch each other, brushing hands over hairy legs or cutting away to skimpy drip-drying swim shorts hanging from bath. The lackadaisical pace allows the viewer to soak up the subtle moments or glances that make this love story even more powerful and long-lasting. He turns what could have been a gimmicky scene with a peach into one of the most erotic and equally heartbreaking moments. The cinematography and production design are nearly indescribable in how they permeate our experience. It’s so wonderfully easy to get lost in a film that is so alive. Two original songs written for the film by Sufjan Stevens are also memorable gems that rise above anything else composed this season.
“We can’t talk about those things,” Oliver said at one point. In the book, Elio is 17 and Oliver 20, although the actors are 20 and 29. At first, I thought Armie Hammer’s role here was miscast, because he looks so much older, but I have come to realize it had to be someone who looked more mature. Wardrobed in era-appropriate short shorts and vintage high-top converse, he creates an iconic ‘80s look. More conservative audiences might take issue with the age difference, but there is an element to the film, I won’t spoil, that seems to excuse that, making that entire argument moot. In one scene Elio tells his father, in front of Oliver, he almost had sex with his girlfriend. What at first seems like a shocking moment, is further used to explain the family’s open nature and forward thinking. Hammer, playing second fiddle to the shining star of Chalamet, is still wonderful in the supporting role, arguably on par to his performance in “J. Edgar.” Michael Stuhlbarg (“The Post,” “The Shape of Water”) continues as one of the most underrated supporting actors of his era, and in a few short scenes, pulls off a wonderful feat. Chalamet will go head to head with former best actor front-runner Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”). Both wonderful performances, but Chalamet’s soul is laid bare here, no prosthetics or accent, it’s a vulnerable performance that speaks far beyond the actor’s young age.
Final thought — One of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.