For an industry built in large part around evoking desire on-screen, movies rarely capture its essence.
That’s especially true of romantic films, which so often pay little more than superficial attention to the messiness, the emotional turmoil, the extraordinary highs and impossible lows that come with feeling such an intense connection to another person.
“Call Me by Your Name,” the new film directed by Luca Guadagnino from a script by James Ivory, embeds itself at the very center of that maelstrom and embraces its position, depicting a coming-of-age story of first love that aches with passion and despair.
It’s about a teenager named Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), whose family (archaeology professor father played by Michael Stuhlbarg; mother by Amira Casar) welcomes into their Italian home a student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) as a resident for the summer of 1983.
What initially appears to be unrequited yearning for this mysterious, dashing stranger evolves into something far more intense over the course of their days and weeks together, becoming the sort of thunderstruck moment of recognition and self-discovery that can define a person forever.
Guadagnino charts this course meticulously, bringing a great sense of significance to gestures like a gentle squeeze of a shoulder, observing languid bike rides and scenes by the pool or the piano in this resplendent setting with an erotic casualness that belies the significance and the intensity of what’s brewing inside these men.
The yearning that defines the movie is captured with precision and grace by Chalamet, who holds the frame with the sort of methodical ease that can make an act as simple as staring into the distance seem fraught with a lifetime’s worth of emotions colliding at once.
He constructs a heart-rending romance with Hammer, who terrifically undercuts his clean-cut and confident demeanor by emphasizing a marked degree of vulnerability. Together, they create something innate: the sense of fates entwining to shape a once-in-a-lifetime love.
This is vibrant and thoughtful acting that represents the very best of the profession, especially when combined with the work of Stuhlbarg, whose tenderness turns what could have been the clichéd role of an out-of-touch father into a figure of wisdom and understanding.
The period details root the movie in a specific moment, but it’s noteworthy that the setting of “Call Me by Your Name” is never defined more than “somewhere in Northern Italy.” There’s an ethereal quality to Guadagnino’s work that shapes its every moment. The story unfolds as if in a dream, a memory of a sun-swept time when the promise of love emerged and brought with it all that’s terrible and wonderful in the world.