Call My By Your Name, written for the screen by James Ivory, harkens back to the glory days of his partnership with the late Ismail Merchant, when the Merchant Ivory brand was an art-house staple.
They made handsome movies about casually wealthy people, usually members of an academic and artistic elite, who loll about in beautiful European locals — here an Italian estate where an art history scholar, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), hosts a student named Oliver (Armie Hammer), who develops a reciprocated attraction to Perlman's 17-year-old son Elio (Lady Bird's Timothée Chalamet).
To say that the movie, directed by Luca Guadagnino, is full of ripe images is the understatement of the year. The mansion is surrounded by an apricot orchard, and the aristocratic Mrs. Perlman (Amira Casar) is forever offering everybody apricots and apricot juice, a kind of nectar that facilitates erotic longing (a metaphor that later gets taken to interesting extremes).
Desires as old as antiquity — the three men go to the site of a salvage operation, where the idealized forms of muscular men, cast or carved by the ancients, are pulled from the sea. The movie is unafraid of excess — there are abundant shots of the hilariously handsome Hammer with unbuttoned shirts and tennis shorts with the Bjorn Borg hemline, sipping apricot juice, but the indulgent swoon of teen attraction (the movie has echoes of Jane Campion's Bright Star) is part of the point.
How the contemporary world accepts these desires is another matter. Call Me By Your Name is set in 1983. Oliver is deeply in the closet, and Elio, who has a beautiful European girlfriend, is surprised, flummoxed, and a little agitated by his attraction to Oliver.
In fact, it's a source of agitation for both of them, as the movie makes clear in well-acted scenes that show their disruptive mutual attraction manifesting itself as a kind of intellectual competition.
Gradually, these scenes give way to deeper conversations about their feelings — words glide from coded to guarded to candid, until the relationship blossoms, in secret.
Or is it a secret? Hanging in the air is the question of how much the Perlman family knows — or is willing to acknowledge — and what the consequences of the knowledge might be.
Chalamet and Hammer map this progression expertly, and each has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role.There is another performance that merits mention, however — Stuhlbarg as Professor Perlman, who lurks around the edge of Elio's coming-of-age summer. We're never sure how much he really sees behind his morning paper, or how he feels about it, though there are hints of it in early scenes.
He gets a chance to specify his feelings in the movie's memorable closing scenes, a moment that offers clarity and humanity in equal measure.