Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17 year old American spending the summer with his family at the vacation villa in northern Italy. He has complete control over how he spends his time—being a brainy kid, he spends much of it reading and transcribing music—with an absolutely supportive family who allows him his privacy but is always there for him. Same with the local teenagers, who accept him as one of their own (he even has a summer girlfriend). In fact, Elio’s existence seems to have been modeled on one of Frances Mayes’ books (Under the Tuscan Sun, etc.)—in his world, the sun is always shining, the countryside always sparkles, conversation is always witty, and everything you eat is fresh and delicious (and prepared by servants who come along with the villa). Elio takes all this for granted, as most young people take their life circumstances as a given, and doesn’t expect this summer to be any different from any other.
Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of archaeology, hires a young assistant each summer to help out with his research. This year, the assistant is Olivier (Armie Hammer), who is as perfect as the villa—stunningly beautiful, charming, brilliant, and kind. He’s also an extrovert, which makes him a perfect complement to Elio’s introversion, and before long the two are spending lots of time together (people talk about working in this movie, but it never impedes their ability to take long bike rides or enjoy leisurely hours at the café). Slowly and cautiously, they begin to reveal their attraction for each other, and you can guess where the story goes from there.
Call Me By Your Name is best regarded as a fantasy, and the oddly chaste nature of this film—there’s very little chemistry between Elio and either of his lovers, but a surplus of gorgeous cinematography—is also easier to understand if you consider it as representing wish fulfillment for someone who has not yet experienced an adult relationship. To put it another way, Call Me By Your Name is a film about a passionate first romance that never realizes that romance on screen, as if the director felt that lots of shots of sun-kissed landscapes could substitute for actually showing us the specificity of this one particular relationship. Matters are not helped by having the father character explicitly state the lesson of the film, as if the director didn’t trust himself to communicate it or the audience to grasp it. Similar lack of trust is evident in the soundtrack by Sufjian Stevens, which insists on telling the audience how to feel when a little subtlety would have been welcome instead.
Call Me By Your Name has half the Merchant-Ivory touch, in that James Ivory wrote the screenplay, adapted from a novel by André Aciman. There’s a lot more pain and indecision in the novel, however, and it spans a much longer period. What Ivory has made here is a condensed, idealized version, a sort of fantasy of what it would be like to be initiated into the adult world while also being able to fall back on the biggest, cushiest safety net imaginable.
For all my criticisms, I enjoyed Call Me By Your Name, and particularly recommend it to people who are up for a vicarious holiday courtesy of the movies. Italy has never looked better on screen than it does in Sayombhu’s Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, and that alone makes Call Me By Your Name worth a trip to the cinema. | Sarah Boslaugh