Coming of age in Northern Italy
Call Me by Your Name is something special in a small multitude of ways.
As a coming-of-age tale centered on a same-sex relationship, it stands out in subject matter alone. But this is also an extraordinary movie experience as a nuanced character study, as a sensuous evocation of time and place (summer in Northern Italy), as a deceptively casual portrait of a family, as a mood piece with delicious sensitivity to color and sound, and as an uncommonly worldly and sophisticated summer romance.
Italian writer-director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) has made the cinematic most of Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name. A fine multilingual cast brings a vivid nonchalance to this charmingly cosmopolitan tale. Plus, those ravishing visuals and that exquisitely gentle sound- and music track are not merely decorative; they’re part of the main point, as well.
In a way, mood and atmosphere are major characters here, particularly in the first sections. The provocative story of Elio and Oliver will inevitably take over, of course, but a key part of the film’s power and appeal arises from the ways in which that central relationship seems to emerge gradually out of the richly detailed circumstances of the characters and their assorted situations.
Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the summer with his parents at their villa in Northern Italy. Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor who works on summer research projects with the help of a live-in research assistant. This particular year’s assistant turns out to be a handsome young graduated student named Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Elio cavorts with a couple of neighboring French lasses (Esther Garrel and Victoire Du Bois) and Oliver catches the attention of several young women at the local dance club. But the crux of the matter is in the slow-brewing mutual attraction between Elio and Oliver, and the chief dramatic ripples have mostly to do with the unexpected bits of emotional surprise and fall-out between the two of them and with several other characters as well. The Elio-Oliver relationship takes a number of paradoxical turns, but the story’s bravura set piece is a conversation between Elio and his father near the end of the film.
Elio’s mother (Amira Casar) has same parallel moments, albeit in briefer form. The cook/housemaid and the villa’s handyman/caretaker are, by implication, part of the supportive family structure that bears witness to Elio’s ongoing story.
As to the significance of the title, that’s made clear enough late in the film, but it’s also something that’s best appreciated as a fresh discovery in its proper moment.