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Director Luca Guadagnino captures a life-defining moment in rich detail

Timothée Chalamet (left) and Armie Hammer star in the slow-burn love story “Call Me By Your Name”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

There is no way I could begin a review of Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” without owning up to my appreciation for “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” his two most recent features. The Italian director, with a penchant for working with the otherworldly Tilda Swinton (another favorite of mine), explored love, personality, and fame with a sense of daring that would have shamed most American filmmakers, but in his case, felt quite common and lived-in. Of course, that should come as no surprise, since Swinton renders bold and outlandish choices as unconsciously as breathing and blinking.

But, in “Call Me By Your Name,” Guadagnino works without the presence of Swinton, who must seem like a safety net anchored under the high-wire. This time, he’s forced to trust screenwriter James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame – “A Room With a View” and “The Remains of the Day”) who is adapting a novel by André Aciman, set in the 1980s in Northern Italy, which lazily pursues the summer fling between a teenage boy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) on the cusp of manhood and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student/research assistant helping Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) work on an excavation of priceless and quite sensual artifacts. 

Although it is both a coming-of-age narrative and a tale of coming out, Guadagnino seals it away in a bubble of sorts, removing it from parallels to the current mood and need to place it in our social discourse. The early 1980s period could have easily fallen into the trap of a pre-AIDS lens, but the Italian setting mutes such concerns to a large degree and the summertime vibe completes the effect, encasing the experiences of Elio and Oliver in amber.

We are allowed to sit back and watch as the bright and quite sensitive Elio passes time with his friends (swimming, biking, and playing volleyball) in between practicing music and reading in solitude. He’s a mix of tossed-off adolescent angst and old soul longing that probably works best on the page, but Chalamet looks exactly like a fictional creation with his dark wild curls, smoldering stare, and rail-thin frame. And the arrival of Oliver, with the giant and quite gangly Hammer unfolding accordion-like out of a tiny car, triggers disdain and curiosity in Elio. He’s assuming Oliver will be just another ugly American, an outsized figure to be scorned and dismissed, but their shared Jewish heritage cracks open the door a bit.

I mentioned that Guadagnino has to overcome the noticeable absence of Swinton, which he does thanks to an almost shadowy performance by Stuhlbarg. For me, he’s been a hidden gem since I first caught up with him in the 2009 Coen Brothers film “A Serious Man,” which I caught during my initial trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. I had the chance to sit across from him during roundtable interviews at the event and found myself too intrigued by his unassuming presence to ask a single question. Stuhlbarg wasn’t averse to playing the publicity game, but I got the sense that he wasn’t interested in giving us a show in that setting, any more than he wanted to light up the screen with pyrotechnic displays. He lures audiences in with his quiet countenance, as he does here.

You purchase the ticket for “Call Me By Your Name” for the sensual slow-burn of a love story that develops between Elio and Oliver, captured against the gorgeous backdrop of Northern Italy, but you might find yourself moved to tears by the genuine appeal Stuhlbarg makes to his son when first love turns, as it must, to heartbreak. This educated and worldly man sits down with his son and schools him on the impact of love and longing, in an honest and explicit manner that lays bare all that Mahershala Ali’s Juan sought to impart to Alex Hibbert’s Little in the initial segment of last year’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight.”

The two films offer starkly different experiences, unified by the notion that the desire to love and be loved is painfully universal. Each film also found ways to reveal the wondrous beauty locked away in such discoveries. That Guadagnino is further along his artistic path means that we can look back at the line of films that helped him establish his name and reputation, in preparation for the treats to come. Without a doubt, he will continue to name and give voice to love and a reflection of what it means to be human.   

Rating: R; Grade: A