Words are only part of a story. What connects words, the silence and observations, the sensory details that provide feeling, are just as vital. In “Call Me By Your Name,” director Luca Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash”) paints a palpable visual splendor for us, as he renders a love story that unfolds between Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet, “Ladybird”) and Oliver (Armie Hammer, “Nocturnal Animals”), when feelings overcome words.
The film, based on the novel by André Aciman, traces Elio, a 17-year-old French, Italian, Jewish amalgam, who spends his adolescent summers in an idyllic, magical town in Northern Italy, where his days consist of transcribing music and reading by quaint ponds. His routine is disrupted when his archaeologist-professor father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg (“The Shape of Water”) hosts Oliver, an American student, for six weeks as part of his studies. Oliver’s crude Americanism stands out from the Perlmans’ understated European sophistication, from his oversized, ill-fitting dress shirts, to his overuse of the phrase “later,” to the aggressive, ill-mannered way he cracks open an egg shell, devouring it primitively, like an American would. Upon Oliver’s arrival, Elio is intrigued.
Guadagnino illustrates a serene and relaxed summer landscape that is an ode to Italy and The Greco-Roman Classics. We get a feel for the characters’ world, with the aid of a sublime soundtrack. Through voyeuristic peeks, aided by a perfect mise en scène of immaculately-set tables with Nutella and juicy fruit, our senses become fully entranced and a part of their reality. We feel Italy’s dewy summer on our skin, and we taste the sticky-sweet apricot flesh on our tongues. The film is a tactile experience, almost even too lush and overwhelming at parts. It is arrestingly visceral. Sensual.
Chalamet is the obvious star here. Though a newcomer to the industry, his performances in both this and “Ladybird” have put him high on the Hollywood radar, resulting in various nominations, particularly up against adroit legends like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. His acting is refined and laid-back — the opposite of overacting. It’s almost too good. He mesmerizes us by appearing relaxed while paradoxically displaying a full range of emotions. He could fold shirts on screen for two hours straight and would somehow entertain us still. Their chemistry is tangible, but Chalamet impresses and outshines Hammer. But after all, it is his movie.
The film could’ve easily fallen into the cliché conventions of a queer love story, but it never does, nor does it aim to moralize. It is about male friendships, the discovering of sexuality and most importantly, the discovery of one’s place in the world, which it doesn’t truly answer but leaves us wondering.
“Call Me By Your Name” shows us the best parts of love and the absolute worst. Given the film’s often scant use of the verbal, there are simply no words to describe its effect. It builds you up, only to break you down, leaving you vulnerable, bawling in the theater with people around you lookingto see if you are okay.