There are very few movies that have stayed with me after exiting the cinema. When I watched “Call Me By Your Name,” I really could not get a feeling for it. There were no outside forces, no reasons move for change or activism that I had seen in several films these past 18 months. What’s so hard about spending the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy just playing the piano in a rustic Italian villa that is a summer getaway. I felt nothing in common with Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old who spent most of his days fooling around with the Italian girls, riding his bicycle, and wearing the same swimming trunks. His parents, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator Annella (Amira Casar), surround him with books in thousands of languages and and a house staff to clean up after him. Outside of his Jewish heritage that makes him a minority in the small Italian town, I didn’t feel much sympathy for the teenager.
The same feeling was directed at Oliver (Armie Hammer), an arrogant 24-year-old graduate student selected to help the professor with his work in Greco-Roman studies. He ends every conversation with “Later!” (this is 1983, after all), and is not afraid to correct Mr. Perlman in public. Oliver is out every night, gambling, dancing with the locals and more. At first, Oliver is another one of the same roles Hammer has played since he made waves as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in 2010’s “The Social Network.” Unlike Elio, Oliver shines his Jewish heritage brightly with a gold Star of David necklace.
What unfolds is a back-and-forth wave of feelings, sensuality and connection between Elio and Oliver. For the teen, his emotions are all over the place. They go from the piano keys to the affections of Marzia (Esther Garrel), a French girl in the village. But deep down, he pulled by Oliver, who at first was giving him signals but back off when the feelings weren’t reciprocated. When Elio finally opens up to Oliver, in probably one of the most beautiful settings in the film, their actions unfold organically. Set to songs by Sufjan Stevens, their love affair bridges the missed cues and lost moments with making the most of what time they have that summer.
“Call Me By Your Name” celebrates love in all forms, ranging from acceptance to long-lasting marriages like that of Elio’s parents. Perhaps the best tribute to it is from Mr. Perlman’s monologue near the end.
But as beautiful as it was, with director Luca Guadagnino choosing to shoot summertime Italy with film over digital, I didn’t feel much for Elio. It wasn’t set during the AIDS epidemic (unlike the novel on which it is based in 1987). Instead, it’s a basic, non-melodramatic love story. The leads are straight men who perform nonexplotitive sex scenes together. There’s a point where Oliver asks Elio if he had come on to him like a molester, and it was an awkward moment.
However, in the few days that followed that screening, I recalled the tiny details, how much of a challenge this is for Elio. Despite living in an accepting environment where he still had to hide his religion, he battled with himself over his feelings for Oliver. I wanted to keep a log of Mr. Perlman’s lines with me, and Stuhlbarg continues to be the right actor for every role he plays.
As I look at my own movie collection, I recall the plot twist in each one. “Call Me By My Name” has one in that there isn’t one. It’s telling that so much of the novel and how the characters change are left of the film just to make a love story. Then again, Hollywood’s answer to romance is the vomit-inducing “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise.
Three and a half stars out of five.