In tracking the ways public perception of LGBT issues have changed over the past few decades, one could do worse than looking at the history of the Academy Awards. With a few notable exceptions, LGBT representation in Best Picture nominees was rare and mainstream cinema, either through lack of effort or open derision, upheld a heteronormative status quo. Over the past several years, the tide has shifted. While it is safe to say many issues still persist, homosexuality is now regularly addressed on the big screen — and at the Oscars. Last year felt like a turning point, when “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age drama about a queer black man, unexpectedly won Best Picture. This year, another critically acclaimed indie film rode a wave of buzz into a Best Picture nomination. Perhaps this would reek of tokenism if the film was not up to par, but in this case, “Call Me By Your Name” is well worth the hype.
The year is 1983, and 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, in a star-making performance) spends his days reading and playing music in a sleepy town in Northern Italy. Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an archaeology professor, and every year he invites a research assistant to work and live in the family home. This year, the assistant is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a confident and handsome American graduate student. Elio initially reacts to Oliver’s presence with trepidation, but the pair slowly bonds in unexpected ways. As their mutual attraction becomes more apparent, the two men come to terms with their desires as their friendship blossoms into a quiet summer romance.
The film unfolds at first like a lazy summer — the first hour is mostly made up of moody, seemingly aimless vignettes. The film’s pacing is remarkably patient, forcing viewers to absorb the film’s tone and setting before latching on to any strict structure. When audiences realize the basic outline of the film’s narrative, each small development in Elio and Oliver’s romance feels like a surprise and a secret. Director Luca Guadagnino’s work here is delicate and assured. The film’s imagery is at times breathtakingly gorgeous, and the carefully composed shots thoughtfully complement James Ivory’s naturally poetic screenplay. Though the dialogue is perfectly pitched, Guadagnino achieves plenty without it — seemingly frivolous interactions, like dancing at a nightclub or splashing in the river, turn into entire sonnets of desire and longing. “Call Me By Your Name” has an instinctual understanding of pleasure: it is an impeccably crafted corporeal and intellectual experience.
“Call Me By Your Name” is anchored by the work of Hammer and Chalamet, who give bold, complex performances. By the end of the film, you probably will have fallen in love along with the central couple. As the relationship develops, both actors expertly portray the shifting dynamics. One will flirt and seduce and the other will pull away, the next day the roles are switched. Both actors take great care in slowly peeling away layers of their character’s façades. On the surface, Elio is two parts angsty sulking and one part smarter-than-thou pretension, but he is hiding an almost unbearable sensitivity — Chalamet understands him to his emotionally naked core. Hammer’s balancing act is just as subtle. Oliver performs an easy confidence and playacts as Elio’s mentor, but in reality, his aging has brought more uncertainty than wisdom. Both separately and together, they are wholly engaging and convincing. The pair can be cocky and reckless one minute, then scared and vulnerable the next — in other words, they are young people having fun, getting hurt and running out of time.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a rare breed: It’s a gay romance that is melancholy but not tragic, erotic but not pornographic. Like many great depictions of queer love, this is a story that explores the poetics of repression. Here, heartbreak is not fetishized — this is not a cautionary tale of death, torture or punishment. It is a refreshing, maybe even revolutionary portrayal, and it’s not hard to see why the film has already won a passionate fan base of young viewers. The film is an excellent representation of LGBT characters, but it never feels like it’s reaching to make a political statement. More than anything, the film strives to be beautiful and it succeeds in every conceivable way.