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Luca Guadagnino is the poet of idle sexuality. His A Bigger Splash captured the sadness and tragedy of lost love while barely raising its pulse above that of the luxurious, idyllic location, a beachfront European coast where clocks don’t seem to exist. Yes, that film has a tragedy in it that drives the engine of the plot but Guadagnino’s interest lies not with exploring that tragedy but in lingering within the lives of people whose path is toward tragedy, but not a journey defined by that tragedy.
Guadagnino’s latest movie, Call Me By Your Name, appears to be on the same path as A Bigger Splash but has more ambition. Call Me By Your Name is a coming of age romance that mirrors the setting of A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino’s home country of Italy, but the film eschews the notion of a typical narrative aiming toward a conclusion that ties the narrative in a fashion that resembles a movie ending.
Call Me By Your Name stars Timothee Chalamet as Elio, the son of Academics, Lyle and Annella Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). Elio’s life is made up of long swims, hikes, brief encounters with Marzia (Esther Garrel), his would be girlfriend, and the hours he spends listening to classical music and writing out the notes he hears in longhand, one of the more unique hobbies I’ve seen in a film character.
Elio’s teenage Idyll is upended by the arrival of his father’s grad-student assistant Oliver (Army Hammer). Oliver has taken over Elio’s bedroom and immediately begins to invade his thoughts. For the first time in his young life, Elio is looking at a man sexually and it creates an immediate tension between he and Oliver whose attempts at being friendly to Elio only seem to complicate matters further.
That Elio and Oliver’s tension will be explored is what Call Me By Your Name is about but the journey of the movie is not what you may be expecting. Most stories involving young love are full of tumult and drama and that isn’t lacking here but it’s not the thrust of the story. Instead, Call Me By Your Name is an exploration of romance and feelings far more than it is about the drama of being a teenager and coming out of the closet.
Call Me By Your Name is far more interested in revealing conversations and lingering looks than in the kinds of things most movies of this kind are interested in. The film is a series of lovely moments such as when Elio observes Oliver on the dance floor, gloriously dancing as if no one were looking. Armie Hammer has said the dance seen embarrassed him but the beauty of the scene, the romance of the moment should more than make up for his white guy strutting.
Luca Guadagnino is fascinated with revealing his characters in a warm, slow fashion that allows you to get comfortable with them as people before he ever starts giving you something that resembles a typical plot. That might sound messy but when you create characters as beautiful, charismatic, sweet and funny as Guadagnino’s, you can be forgiven the lack of a forceful narrative. The story is based on the novel by Andre Aciman and was adapted by James Ivory, but the feel of the film is all Guadagnino.
Michael Stuhlbarg deserves an Academy Award for his performance as Elio’s father, Lyle. While some might see Lyle as an idealized notion of the kind of father a young coming out teenager might want, Stuhlbarg invests Lyle with a great deal of soul. Given the chance at a luxuriant monologue near the end of the film, Stuhlbarg is unfaltering in his empathetic, sweet, and thoughtful notion of fatherhood. You can sense genuine concern but not fear for himself, this isn’t a self-centered speech, just a loving declaration of purchase, a message of love and understanding from a father to a son. It’s beautiful, and Oscar-worthy.
A Bigger Splash may be more satisfying from a narrative perspective but Call Me By Your Name is more nakedly emotional than Guadagnino’s previous film. This is a sensitive romance that is respectful of the feelings of its characters and is content to explore those feelings without compromising for the necessity plot and the expected dramatic snags that are an inevitable in storytelling. There is drama here and the characters do grow and learn but they do so at a pace that is all their own and not a function of narrative necessity. That’s part of what makes Call Me By Your Name so very special.