“If only you knew how little I knew about the things that matter,” drawls Elio (Timothée Chalamet) halfway through Call Me By Your Name. Seventeen, quietly creative, loudly bored, he’s talking to the handsome grad student who’s spending the summer of ’83 at his parents’ Italy home. It’s the culmination of weeks of furtive flirtation. “What things?” asks the object of his affection. “You know what things,” murmurs Elio. Indeed, we do.
In a film that floats between coming-of-age ennui and heart-stopping moments of beauty, this is the first time Elio talks openly about his feelings. Up until this point, Luca Guadagnino’s alluring adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel luxuriates in ambiguity. Between bright cups of apricot juice and tins of Illy coffee, the story unspools of Elio’s crush on 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), an all-American jock in tiny shorts whose breezy geniality aggravates as much as it allures.
As the duo embark on winding country bike rides and circle each other in sun-dappled courtyards, Chalamet and Hammer cast a beguiling spell. In a giant step up from playing Matthew McConaughey’s son in Interstellar, Chalamet is remarkable, etching an unshowy portrait of a boy on the cusp of adulthood; constantly pretending, seemingly unsure how to behave. Chalamet speaks fluent English, Italian and French, plays the piano and, in the film’s boldest holdover from Aciman’s novel, fearlessly enacts an unforgettable moment with a peach.
Hammer, meanwhile, is a revelation. Departing each scene with a maddening “later”, he’s a million miles from big-budget blow-outs such as The Lone Ranger and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Pivotally, he’s unafraid of allowing Oliver to be unlikeable, lending this luminously optimistic film an edge that kills sentimentality in its tracks.
Guadagnino is a master of the slow build but, unlike the mounting hysteria of I Am Love and the shock rug-pulls of A Bigger Splash, this feels more urgently personal, capturing the pleasures and pains of youth with bracing sensitivity. When Elio talks of “things that matter” it’s relatable no matter your gender or orientation. CMBYN finds a neat balance between heart and art (something Guadagnino has struggled with), whether it’s referencing Heraclitus or playing on Hellenic male relationships.
Of course, there are also Ray-Bans and ‘Love My Way’ by The Psychedelic Furs; the magic of Guadagnino’s film is in its deceptively freewheeling style. In its final moments, CMBYN offers a powerfully emotional full stop; those things that matter have rarely been more arrestingly captured.
Verdict: Peachy keen. A luminous, sun-kissed Italian love story brimming with warmth, passion and feeling. This is utterly unmissable.
This review was originally published in Total Film magazine.