Luca Guadagnino’s latest is both alluring and alienating in equal measure. That’s part and parcel of its beauty. It forgoes the idea of a larger plot or structure – there is no broader conceit underscoring its will-they, won’t-they – instead choosing the interplay of secrets as its grounding point, as its lead characters engage in dance. Sometimes the dance is literal - the outward expression of music and rhythm on an Italian summer night. Other times the dance is the mere proximity of bodies and feelings, stepping backward, forward and back again, figuring out when to take the next step. As much as Call Me By Your Name is “about” an academic researcher getting it on with his professor’s son (to be fair, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalomet in shorts in the ‘80s ought to be reason enough), what it’s about is the complex nature of sexual and romantic secrecy, in all its joys and sorrows.
That it feels almost entirely unstructured works both against it and in its favour. Its two-hour runtime feels closer to three, owing to there being no discernible goalposts nor any indication of how long these lovers have left in their summertime romp, but is that necessarily a complaint when even its most drawn-out scenes focus on a pair of bodies and souls figuring each other out as they begin to figure out themselves? It exists almost detached from time, in a dreamlike state with scenes playing out like vignettes of varying lengths, beginning and ending (often abruptly) at heightened moments, but every scene is imbued with tenderness and bittersweet joy.
Chalomet’s Elio is Jewish, French, Italian, American and seventeen. His family spends their summers in Crema, a small town which feels plucked out of paradise and one that plays host to both leisurely bike rides and intense summer flings. Everything is normal and boring and relaxing until his father’s latest research assistant, Armie Hammer’s Oliver, takes over Elio’s bedroom for the summer. Elio moves into the room next door, sharing only a bathroom (the most intimate of spaces) with Oliver while the two maintain their distance. That is of course until their mutual back-and-forth of glances and flirtatious arguments lead to them dropping all pretense in front of one another, building protective walls around their affair in the process.
Timothée Chalomet is tremendous as Elio. His adolescent bravado in front of his summer girlfriend gives way to hunched over insecurities in private as he discovers a newfound sense of duality with Oliver, one he has no idea how to navigate. As much as he tries to play it cool, the profound weight of his self-discovery is terrifying. While the presence of the older, more experienced Oliver is the genesis for his confusion, he is also Elio’s comfort. Chalomet and Armie Hammer light up the screen with their chemistry, forming the kind of camaraderie you could get lost in. There’s a boyish playfulness to their dynamic, even as Oliver is at first wary of taking advantage of Elio’s fragility, but he too settles into his desires as Hammer’s own no-nonsense bluntness and brevity give way to protective empathy.
The new world that opens up in front of Elio isn’t just one of sex and romance. While there is liberation in sharing something pure and beautiful with Oliver it’s also a dynamic that must exist in secret, a constant changing of states that Oliver is accustomed to but one Elio still needs to figure out. There is no immediate danger per se – Elio’s parents, played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar – seem open and accepting, and his affair with Oliver may very well be an open secret, yet the result of these lowered immediate stakes is the opportunity for the film to delve inward. There is a world outside of this bubble and an expiration date to whatever Elio and Oliver have, but the knowledge of its temporariness and finality isn’t framed as some dour, nihilistic sentiment. Stuhlbarg for instance, ends up the most warm and welcoming part of the film, his personable, paternal smile offering hope and comfort even in times of emotional disarray.
Elio may not be ready to come out by the end of it. He may not even be ready to accept himself, and the world may not be ready to accept him either, yet there comes a point in the film where he apes Oliver by proudly sporting a Star of David around his neck. Oliver, a child of New England, knows what it’s like to be the only Jew in the vicinity and for Elio, whose multi-cultural family describes themselves as “Jews of discretion,” that means knowing which parts of one’s identity to put on display. With yet another major social code to switch, the burden of identity could very well be overwhelming, but Oliver’s presence, like that of Call Me By Your Name itself, acts as a guiding hand, making him less afraid to simply be.