“Call Me by Your Name,” a rapturous celebration of first love, is on the roster at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this week. Starring Timothée Chalamet as 17-year-old Elio Perlman and Armie Hammer as 24-year-old Oliver, it follows the trajectory of their budding romance.
Directed by Sicilian-born Luca Guadagnino, the script has been masterfully adapted by James Ivory of Merchant-Ivory fame from Egyptian-born André Aciman’s novel of the same name. It earned Golden Globe nominations for both of its top stars as well as for Best Picture, and will no doubt receive Oscar nominations.
Elio lives with his parents, Samuel (a compelling Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor, and his mother Annella (Amira Casar), a translator. The year is 1983, and the family is spending the summer at their 17th-century villa in northern Italy.
These background details do not begin to convey the magic of “Call Me by Your Name.” Character, plot, and setting combine to evoke first love. Elio is a skinny musical prodigy on the brink of young adulthood and sexual maturity. He hangs out with his friends, including Marzia (Esther Garrel), in a rarified world of art, books, music, intellectual discussion, and the lushness of midsummer Italy.
Every summer Elio’s father enlists a graduate student to help him with his research, and this particular summer, it is Oliver, an American Ph.D. candidate writing his dissertation on Herodotus. At first Elio finds himself annoyed by Oliver, who is handsome, self-assured, and macho. He has to relinquish his bedroom to this interloper with a habit of flippantly saying “later,” and act as his tour guide. Elio’s annoyance quickly turns to fascination, then infatuation.
At the same time, Elio is busy exploring his own physicality, checking out his armpits, shaving his upper lip, masturbating, having sex with Marzia. The camera watches him watch Oliver while he tries to hide his growing interest in this man. It includes such silly teenage antics as sneaking into Oliver’s bedroom and draping Oliver’s swimsuit over his head. At first Oliver seems to ignore him, even though they bike into town together, swim, and go to dance clubs.
Evidence of their mutual attraction accumulates, first when Oliver squeezes Elio’s shoulder muscles after volleyball, soon when the two kiss for the first time. Oliver is reluctant to pursue his growing interest in this much younger boy who is the son of his employer, but passion eventually takes over. In this era, gay relationships remain something to be circumspect about. Although the two pursue their liaison surreptitiously, Elio’s parents sense what’s going on. They are hardly the outraged or bigoted parents of too many gay tales.
Guadagnino and Ivory have created a rich environment for the flowering of this love affair. They use the abundance of the season with its trees, fields, water, and fruit to reinforce the qualities of Elio’s and Oliver’s relationship. Apricots in particular play a role. Oliver devours apricot juice; he and Samuel verbally joust over the origin of the word; Elio tries out sexual gratification with an apricot. The tone remains accepting and nonjudgmental.
“Call Me by Your Name” is not a perfect vehicle. Hammer, who was 29 when the film was made, seems too old and too much the Hollywood leading man for the role of Oliver. While caring and thoughtful, Samuel’s speech to his son near the end of the movie seems preachy and a little misguided. “Call Me by Your Name” belongs to Chalamet; it’s an Oscar-worthy performance.
Information and tickets for this and other Film Center screenings are available at mvfilmsociety.com.