Director Luca Guadagnino makes sensual epics in every definition of the adjective. In his previous films “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” he makes movies that audiences don’t merely see and hear; these are experiences to be touched, felt, even smelled. His characters exist in a specific natural context, and he conveys their reactions to their surroundings.
His latest feature, the masterful “Call Me by Your Name,” ups the ante on Guadagnino’s sensuality. We can feel the grass under bare feet, smell lake water and perspiration on exposed skin, and taste the fresh apricots. (And yes, the peaches — there’s a scene involving the fuzzy fruit that takes the eroticization of the grapefruit in “Girls Trip” to a whole new level.)
As always with the director’s work, the tactile and olfactory elements of the film never overpower the story, but instead support the characterizations; he makes us privy to awakenings of mind, body and spirit and to the dizzying rush of new love and sexual discovery.
Experiencing all those feelings is 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, “Miss Stevens,” “Lady Bird”), a musical prodigy spending the summer in northern Italy with his father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and mother Annella (Amira Casar, “Versailles”), a translator. Every summer, a grad-student intern comes to live with them and to work with the professor, and this year it’s 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Elio is both drawn to and taken aback by this newcomer: he’s tall and handsome (and somewhat awkward in his movements — this film has already inspired the “Armie Hammer Dancing” gif meme), he’s a blond preppy (but like the Perlmans, he’s Jewish, sporting a Star of David pendant), and his seeming insouciance (he ends every encounter with a breezy “Later”) might well be a constructed façade. The teenager is fascinated, annoyed, obsessed.
Guadagnino and legendary screenwriter James Ivory (adapting the novel by André Aciman, who turns in a cameo here) are in no hurry to bring these guys together. The director’s go-to editor, Walter Fasano, lets scenes play out in long, uninterrupted takes, capturing the feeling of those glorious summer days that seem to stretch out into eternity. That summer feeling emerges from scene to scene as well, as the days occasionally blur together, leaving us to look at Elio’s T-shirts for an indication of whether or not the film has moved forward in time.
Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) gives us all the sunlight-rippling-off-rivers we could ever want for a film set during an Italian summer, but he also throws in some experimental flashes of light and shadow and polarization to portray the shifting sense of memory; this is the kind of love story that inspires reminiscence and nostalgia even as it’s still unfolding.
A romance does, of course, travel on the weight of the lovers, and Chalamet and Hammer both give extraordinary, intricate performances as two people unsure about themselves and each other who eventually discover their truest selves in each other’s presence. When Oliver suggests the exchange that gives the film its title, it illustrates that deep passion by which two lovers can be together and lose track of where one begins and one ends.
As we enter into award season, there are many performances that will stand out because of their bombast or because of the actor’s physical transformation, but the extended take on Chalamet’s face under the closing credits of “Call Me By Your Name” offers some of the most delicate yet heart-achingly moving work anyone has ever done on screen. (It immediately enters the Close-Up Hall of Fame.) Hammer, meanwhile, has never been this open or empathetic on-screen, and Stuhlbarg and Casar both register understated moments in which these worldly and wise parents acknowledge what’s happening in their son’s life.
First love is as much about hesitancy as it is about exuberance – maybe even more so – and Ivory and Guadagnino perfectly capture that sweet turmoil, aided by a gifted ensemble. This isn’t just an instant LGBT classic; this is one of the great movie love stories, for audiences of all stripes.