Call Me by Your Name can be described as many things: a coming of age tale of desire, a subtle take on both the Jewish and expatriate experiences, an unpretentious and honest look at sexual identity, and an ode to self-discovery in the eighties. To reduce it down to just one of those would be wrong. To say that it won’t knock the wind out of you would be a lie.
Based upon André Aciman’s novel of the same name, the film follows Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old expatriate living with his family “somewhere in Northern Italy.” Elio is a true Renaissance man, fluent in multiple languages, highly skilled in multiple instruments, and more knowledgeable than most of the scholars that come to research under his father. But the new scholar, Oliver (Armie Hammer), is something Elio is not: aloof, confident, and, above all, cool. Throughout the summer, both Elio and Oliver start relationships with some of the local girls, all the while butting heads with one another. Only after they call a truce do they allow themselves to explore the sexual tension brewing between them.
Timothée Chalamet makes the complex role of Elio look like a breeze, easily delivering the best performance of the film as well as one of the best performances of the year. Michael Stuhlbarg’s role as Elio’s father is a knockout as well and Armie Hammer appears completely at home in his role as the cool macho man.
Luca Guadagnino follows up the sensual and dramatic A Bigger Splash by employing many of the same elements that made him successful in the first place. An important running thread in all of his films has been a strong sense of humor in otherwise very heavy and dramatic stories, which was very prevalent in Call Me by Your Name, most often employed by Elio’s father. Upon introducing the film, it became apparent that this comedic streak is an integral part of Guadagnino himself, as when he was asked why he shot the film in Italy, he replied with, “So I could sleep in my own bed.”
Part of what makes Call Me by Your Name so effective lies in what it didn’t do, rather than what it did. Many films revolving around sexual awakening feature graphic sex scenes, especially so when that sexual awakening is of a homosexual nature. This never occurs in Call Me by Your Name, and though sex is definitely implied, Guadagnino and writer James Ivory steer the focus away from this and instead let the film revolve around the intense emotional journey that Elio and Oliver go on.
One of the film’s most effective devices is its use of sound. It is scored brilliantly, with its soundtrack ranging from classical Bach to hits of the 1980s to Italian pop to modern ballads. Some of the film’s most poignant moments establish their tone through the saccharine songs of Sufjan Stevens, two of which, Mystery of Love and Visions of Gideon, he wrote specifically for the film. Call Me by Your Name would not be the same film without its extremely effective soundtrack, which establishes the context of the film, not just regarding time and place, but also emotion and tone.
Having already achieved critical praise and notable buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the Call Me by Your Name is quickly joining the ranks of other LBGTQ festival darlings, such as Carol and Moonlight, and it would not be surprising in the least to see them follow in their path come awards season.