In his last film, A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino stuck four attractive people in a remote holiday home and set off a sort of lustful Hunger Games, where sex was a weapon in a battle for dominance. Call Me By Your Name is similar in its set-up, but the opposite in how it plays out. It puts two strangers in another impossibly glamorous, isolated home and lights the fuse on their attraction, but this one burns long and slow, not fast and angry. Based on Andre Aciman’s novel, it’s a romance overwhelming in its intensity, a heart that swells until it has to burst.
A full-hearted romantic masterpiece.
Elio (Chalamet) is 17 years old and living in the Italian countryside with his artsy parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). Handsome, but more boyish than he perhaps believes, Elio is confident and smart, liked by everyone who meets him. Every room he enters is his. But he is thrown off balance by the arrival of Oliver (Hammer), a twentysomething who has come to stay to assist Elio’s father in his work. Oliver looks like the American ideal distilled into a single man. And with his charm, looks and presence outstripped, Elio is immediately transfixed.
Guadagnino’s telling of the development of this romance, which changes both parties, is like the feeling of getting gently drunk. It’s smooth but a little dizzying. He fills every scene with life. Trees are heavy with fruit; people are always eating; the chirping of crickets a constant soundtrack. He thrusts life at you and wills his characters to live theirs. Long summer days drift away in a gentle routine of swimming, cycling and nothing, but each day that passes with feelings unvoiced is a day lost — they will never have it back.
The screenplay, written by James Ivory, is elegant and full of small surprises. The level of attention given to even the smallest of characters means so many of them have an impact even with minimal screen time — Elio’s brief girlfriend breaks your heart with a handful of lines. What few vocal emotional outpourings are present are earned — a paternal monologue by Stuhlbarg in the final minutes is as verbose as the film gets and, good lord, it makes it count (bring tissues). But much is conveyed in the many silences which are entrusted to an excellent cast.
Chalamet is the centre and he gives the kind of performance that immediately sends you to Google to find out where the hell this kid came from (he may be familiar from Interstellar or Homeland). All Elio’s teenage emotions are raw on Chalamet’s skin. He plays him as a person still forming, not scared by his feelings but surprised. In a film in which every performance is terrific, Chalamet makes the rest look like they’re acting. He alone would make the film worth watching, but he’s just one of countless reasons.