Since its premiere at Sundance last summer, Luca Guadagnino's latest film has received nearly unanimous praise, which is often a sign of bland likability. But Call Me by Your Name is the rare festival smash that is broadly accessible without sacrificing one whit of intelligence, subtlety, or craft.
The film kicks off with a sly self-conscious wink as the intertitles "Somewhere in Northern Italy" evoke a fairy-tale realm attuned to the sensuous climate and refined culture yet removed from the pressures of history and politics. Young Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet, sure to become a star) and his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar), a family of transatlantic Jewish intellectuals, are on their annual summer vacation at their seventeenth-century Italian country home. Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student, soon arrives as a temporary assistant to Elio's father, a professor of classical archaeology. Oliver plays the alpha-bro foil to Elio's moody child prodigy, and their initial tension breaks into a brief but passionate affair.
One of Guadagnino's many achievements is how he charges the ephemeral story with import and anticipation. The sheer thrill of the filmmaking is undeniable, lensed in 35mm by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (best known for his work with Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and composed to convey a wealth of subtle information without ever being obvious. James Ivory's script, adapted from André Aciman's internationally renowned novel, delights in intellectual pleasures absent from most contemporary cinema. It's been awhile since we've seen anything like a performance of Bach in the style of Liszt or a quote from a sixteenth-century French romance played as erotic overtures. Yet neither does the film shy away from raw sentimentality; the beautiful climactic speech by Elio's father about the necessity of heartbreak serves as a manifesto.
If I've only indirectly identified Elio and Oliver's relationship as queer, that's because the film is indirect to a fault about the terms normally used to describe nonheterosexual romantic love. This is not to say that it lacks specificity—far from it. Most of Elio and Oliver's developing passion is conveyed through silent glances, innuendo, and the details of the 1983 mise-en-scène. The film never mentions gay liberation or the AIDS crisis, but the cultural markers are precise, from Elio's Ray-Ban sunglasses to a pivotal dance sequence set to The Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way."
Though circumstances require them to be discreet, the lovers are protected from serious opprobrium by class and the enlightened temperament of Elio's parents. Both men also have flirtations with women, yet neither seems forced by the encounter to radically question his identity. Guadagnino's eye equally eroticizes men, women, and their environment (including a particular piece of fruit), and he has been criticized for whitewashing gay sex as well as gay politics.
Instead of exploring gay identity, the filmmakers have carved out a kind of laboratory for queer love. Elio and Oliver's affair is as isolated from their respective life histories as it is from history writ large, even if its memory stays with them forever. Within those limits, they are free. Accept the film's limits, and Call Me by Your Name is nearly perfect.