What might make Call Me By Your Name the first wide release film about two gay men fondling each other to attract audiences since 2005 is that it presents itself as an idyll: Armie Hammer is Oliver, a graduate student summering at an Italian villa owned by the Perlmans (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) while helping Mr. Perlman, a professor of archeology, with translations and an awful lot of swimming in the rivers and drinking. Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls in love with Oliver, without embarrassment and shame – at first. This is refreshing.
As he demonstrated in A Bigger Splash and I Am Love, Luca Guadagnino loves filming the activities of gods, in their spectacular human forms, condemned to interact with stunned mortals. For its first hour, Call Me By Your Name is opulence porn, aka a Merchant Ivory film (James Ivory wrote the original script), albeit one that understands movement and camera work. What a leisured life: bike trips to town for cigarettes, trysts with local girls, allusions to seventeenth century French poetry, and – foreshadowing a later, infamous scene familiar to fans of the novel – peach trees.
“I’m gonna talk in etymologies,” Oliver cracks to the Perlmans conversations one of their first conversations. Shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom with an awareness of the play of August sunlight on bare male skin and the texture of thick humid flybuzzed air as fine as Nester Almendros’ early seventies work for Eric Rohmer, Call Me By Your Name studies the etymology of adolescent male desire, the way that submission can be as satisfying as release if it’s all that’s available. Unlike his lugubrious counterpart in André Aciman’s novel, Guadagnino’s Elio is a conniving horndog, necessarily bisexual, able to mimic Busoni playing Liszt playing Bach on the piano – a true man for all seasons. The resourceful Chalamet, best known for Interstellar, is a pleasure to watch; it’s his movie. Elio wants Oliver, period, and Chalamet’s beautifully physical performance – legs tossed over chairs, bare toes curled on stones, his eyes watching his parents’ boredom with the chicanery of Italian politics in the eighties, licking Hammer’s mouth and squeezing his scrotum – in an exercise in submission. Two heavyhanded elements are nits: Sufjan Stevens’ contributions and Stuhlbarg’s expert but too-good-to-be-true last act monologue.
Call Me By Your Name screened at Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival GEMS 2017. It will open in South Florida in December.