First great film I’ve seen in 2018, Call Me By Your Name is a moving coming-of-age tale, a beautiful romance and a love letter to the warm, sensuous, sun-kissed charms of Northern Italy. I’m sure I say this every time, but my heart skips a beat whenever I see lush summery European landscape onscreen, and in Luca Guadagnino’s film it’s a perfect backdrop for the gently unfolding, finely observed, slow-burn story of a vibrant, life-changing first love that cannot last.
It’s the summer of 1983 and Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a precocious, awkward, artistic 17-year-old boy spending time at his parents’ summer home. There’s nothing much to do in their sleepy small town except read, swim and flirt half-heartedly with a local girl. But things get more interesting with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer, who finally gets a truly great role after his memorable turn in The Social Network), an American doctoral student who stays at the house for the internship Elio’s father, a professor of Greco-Roman culture, offers annually. Oliver looks like a cross between a dazzling Greek god and an ultimate American hunk – tall, blond, impossibly handsome, with a deep manly voice and irresistible confidence. Though Elio and Oliver seem to have little in common other than their Jewish background, and are quite prickly towards each other at first, the two have an instant connection that slowly transforms into attraction and genuine feelings.
Though Oliver and Elio hide their affair from everyone around them, the movie doesn’t actually create much tension or sense of jeopardy from this aspect of their relationship. Rather, the drama and heartbreak come from the ever-present realisation that this fleeting summer romance cannot last, even, one suspects, if the society had a more accepting attitude. There’s a tinge of melancholy to the sumptuous, languid settings, the quaint small town streets, the long evening meals, and the tender love scenes which while not explicit are incredibly sensual. This sadness is further enhanced by the plaintive musical contributions from Sufjan Stevens, who provides a couple of new songs. Also, Luca Guadagnino sure does love his food, and there’s a particularly memorable scene involving a ripe peach that’s probably the most erotic onscreen use of a fruit in a film ever.
Growing up can hurt, but Elio’s pain is softened by the beautiful monologue from his warm-hearted father which I found deeply moving. Call Me By Your Name is the proof that there’s always room for yet another coming-of-age story, when it’s told in such a perfectly calibrated and sensitive way.