"Call Me by Your Name" is an aesthetic journey with a punch
It's summertime in Northern Italy in 1983 on a secluded 17th century villa, where life among the antiquities is beautifully tranquil and nothing is ever pressing. There is time to read the paper in the morning, while delicately picking at a soft-boiled egg. There is time to dally around with the locals at the lake for endless stretches or pop into a card game while in town "running errands." Shirts are optional, shoes are too, bathing suits are a wardrobe staple and naps are a way of life. No one is ever making grocery runs or stressing about what to have for dinner (that's the cook's job). Even the flies are serene.
This is life for a precocious 17-year-old, Elio (Timothee Chalamet), his Greco-Roman professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) in Luca Guadagnino's unabashedly beautiful and subtly powerful adaptation of Andre Aciman's novel of first love and burgeoning sexuality. His father has enlisted, as he always does, a research assistant for the summer. This year's model is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American graduate student who is comically sculpted and handsome, preternaturally confident and disarmingly intelligent.
Oliver doesn't look 24, however. He looks like a grown man, which makes Elio, whose skinny, stretched frame can barely fill out his denim shorts and polo shirts, look even younger.
The exaggerated physical incongruities only highlight the rift in emotional maturity between Elio and Oliver, whose flirtation intensifies from imperceptible to full flung over the course of Oliver's time with the Perlman family. Oliver teases, Elio resists, and the desire eventually manifests itself into a beautiful and tastefully sensual physical relationship.
Chalamet, with his sleepy eyes and gawky-confident gait, gets the role of a lifetime in Elio. His performance is one that is so lived-in and naturalistic that its impact almost catches you off guard. Hammer is very good too as an effortlessly charming specimen who knows how to use his inherently charismatic presence to make everyone fall in love with him.
"Call Me by Your Name" can be a bit of a sleeper at times. Knowing conversations about the curves of Greek statues or the origins of the word "apricot" can feel indulgent and obvious in James Ivory's script. And there is that ever-present fog of the enormous wealth of everyone involved — the "good" kind of wealth, a Platonic ideal of Persol sunglasses, rumpled Ralph Lauren t-shirts, and the daily pursuit of leisure, sport and knowledge. It can be a little much, but, like all of Guadagnino's films ("A Bigger Splash," ''I Am Love"), it is certainly pretty to look at.
And it's an aesthetic journey that pays off in a stunning third act when the endless summer quickens to light speed and is gone in a flash.
"We wasted so many days," Elio says to Oliver, finally recognizing that life will not always be languid afternoons by the lake, and regretful of how long it took for him to realize what he wanted. And, just like that, you start to feel wistful along with the characters — mourning the moment as it's happening.
It's all building up to the two scenes of the movie, the ones that will contextualize and poeticize everything that came before it. First, an all-timer monologue from father to son that serves as a kind of thesis for the film, and, really, life.
Then, the final shot, which will stop you cold and gnaw at your heart for days (and probably longer), until you pick yourself up and take yourself back to the movies to spend the summer again with Elio and Oliver. The characters might not be able to go back and relive those idle days, but we can.
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