Even if you’re allergic to that arthouse subgenre about bourgeois European intellects who have nothing to do with their summer except dine al fresco, philosophize about western civilization, and decide who to have sex with that night, you owe it to yourself to check out the loveliness of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name and draw your own conclusions about the hype. Looking at its list of ingredients, the easiest point of comparison is Eric Rohmer—so easy, in fact, that it’s worthwhile to jump at it and note the differences. The heroes and heroines of a Rohmer film are at least halfway preoccupied with theory; that is, they have hearts and libidos, but will talk themselves into logical knots trying to rationalize what they do or don’t do. Call Me By Your Name is less concerned with rationality or rationalization. It is a film that dives headlong into pure sensuality: beautiful scenery, beautiful houses, beautiful works of art, beautiful women, beautiful men, beautiful words (a script by James Ivory), and beautiful music (courtesy of Sufjan Stevens).
Set in the the early 1980s, the plot is the brief, blossoming love affair between a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet) and an older grad student (Armie Hammer) who comes to stay at his family’s villa in the Italian countryside. It is a movie about homosexual awakening, though most of the politics of an LGBT identity—each hero has affairs with women as well as each other—is largely absent. (Guadagnino has been criticized for discreetly cutting away from outright showing gay sex, which is a fair point, though I doubt homophobes and insecure masculinities will be comfortable with what he does show, even when it’s just a boy alone with a peach). For my money, the film’s philosophy is more the capital-A Aestheticism of Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray: the idea that you should follow your desire for new sensations to wherever it leads you. It is also an extremely generous film, a showcase for all involved where no one hogs the spotlight. Chalamet is as much the breakout star as you might’ve heard. Hammer is fine in a role that calls for being handsome, aloof, and unreadable. Guadagnino’s direction keeps everyone in precise relation to one another. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is glowing and immersive. Sufjan Stevens’s piano score pairs well with so much sunlight reflecting off a lake. And Michael Stuhlbarg, as Chalamet’s father, gets to deliver the speech that gives the story its moral: that opening yourself to life’s experience means embracing all the emotions that come with it. With all these elements in such elegant arrangement, the 130 minute runtime flies by, and it sticks in your memory like a summer vacation you never had with a group of friends you never met. As good as it is, I’m not convinced the film escapes its own rarefied atmosphere, or that it ultimately leaves you with more than an emotional trip. But such trips are to be treasured, and it’s a major Oscar contender for a reason. Its virtues and limitations are no less, and no more, than those of beauty itself.
Call Me By Your Name is in select theaters and up for a boatload of Golden Globes.