Sundance 2017: Call Me by Your Name, by David Bax
The characters in Luca Guadagnino’s quietly staggering Call Me by Your Name are members of an incredibly wealthy family. These “Jews of discretion” whose family tree covers most of Western society and who spend summers and holidays at their country home outside a small Northern Italian town live in a separate stratosphere from the everyday ham-and-eggers who make up what we proudly think of as “the real world.” But there are reasons other than financial ones to hold them in high regard. For one thing, with their rustic antique furniture and simple but casually elegant wardrobes, they have exceptionally good taste, something that no amount of money can buy (just look at our president). Most importantly, they are intellectuals and lovers of art and history, traits Guadagnino suggests are responsible for their being understanding, respectful and compassionate people.
It’s the summer of 1983 and only son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is bored. He is, by his own admission, just waiting for the summer to be over when Oliver (Armie Hammer), a young scholar, arrives to assist Elio’s professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) with paperwork and other studies. Guadagnino takes his time, luxuriating in the warm weather and the languorously accumulating tension but, eventually, Elio and Oliver find themselves in a deep physical and emotional love affair.
Chalamet is quickly becoming one of the most reliable young actors around. In last year’s delicate, stirring Miss Stevens, his vulnerability was as uplifting as it was painful. In Call Me by Your Name, he embodies a generally more confident character. Elio is smart and attractive and aware of those traits without being arrogant about them. Still, he knows he’s no match for Oliver in either the brains or looks departments (both actors’ bodies are the repeated recipients of the camera’s lingering gaze) and he also knows he is unprepared for the feelings and impulses that crop up after Oliver’s presence. Chalamet spectacularly reveals this burgeoning uncertainty while never forgetting to channel it through the self-assuredness that is Elio’s trademark. Meanwhile, Hammer gives his most robust performance yet and Stuhlbarg presents a sturdy and tactile patriarch who reveals unexpected grace in a late, quietly climactic monologue.
Mr. and Mrs. Perlman’s (Amira Casar) parenting techniques are unorthodox in general but never troubling. They often seem to be more friends to Elio than parents but in a way that exhibits respect, not permissiveness. We do eventually get a recognizable look at their parental status when they insist Elio where a shirt he hates because the friends who gave it to him are coming for dinner; it’s a reminder that some things about families are universal. Overall, their laissez-faire child-rearing methodology seems to have resulted in a son who is refreshingly honest, especially for a movie character his age. It’s almost befuddling for an onscreen teenager to repeatedly say exactly what he means.
Even if we never lie, though, we may still keep secrets. In most movies, secrets are plot devices, catalysts of conflict. Guadagnino has no interest in that. Instead, he shows us private information—like, say, why you wear a certain chain around your neck or what quiet place you go to think or read alone—as energizing and empowering. Sharing these confidences with someone for whom you feel trust and infatuation is a thrill that bonds you to one another. Of course, given the time and place, Elio and Oliver aren’t going to broadcast their romance but, in Guadagnino’s hands, secrets are not held to be revealed as a wallop to introduce the third act. In Call Me by Your Name, secrets are the currency of intimacy.