Sure, stories about young love are as timeless as “Romeo & Juliet,” but I defy anyone to find a story of first love — its triumphs and heartbreaks, its feverish beginnings and its sad endings — that’s as passionate or as moving as the one told in “Call Me by Your Name.”
Director Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel of a teen’s memorable first romance is as languid and as steamy as the Italian summer in which it’s set — and as beautiful as its breakout star, Timothée Chalamet.
It’s 1983 in the north of Italy, and 17-year-old Elio Perlman (played by Chalamet) is spending his summer vacation with his family in a 17th-century villa near where his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is doing research on Greco-Roman culture. Elio spends his time transcribing music, going on bike rides and flirting half-heartedly with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel).
Enter Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old grad student working on his doctorate and taking a summer job as Prof. Perlman’s intern. At first, Elio doesn’t think too much of Oliver, whose informal American manners — when he says goodbye, it’s a perfunctory “later” — grate on the teen’s European-grown sensibilities.
But Oliver, Elio finds, is unlike most anyone he’s met before. He’s outgoing and wears his emotions on his sleeve, whether dancing to his favorite song (Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way”) or appreciating Perlman’s views of classical forms. Oliver also is as improbably good-looking as a Roman statue and doesn’t mind that Elio is attracted to that.
The more Elio and Oliver spend time together, the more the connection grows. But Elio, being an inexperienced teen, doesn’t have the words to express those feelings. Eventually, he gets his point across, causing Oliver to ask a question — “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” — that changes everything.
Aciman is a Proust scholar, and his 2007 novel told Elio’s story as a memory play, a fond remembrance of a frozen moment in his youth. It’s up to screenwriter James Ivory, the legendary filmmaker behind “Howards End” and “A Room With a View,” to bring Elio’s memory into the here-and-now, and it’s a wonder to find Ivory, who turns 90 this coming summer, still in touch with the feelings and foibles of a young man discovering unexpected love.
Guadagnino, who captured similar hothouse romantic stories in “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom saturate the film’s sex scenes in the steamy, dreamy atmosphere of an Italian summer vacation. And Guadagnino sets the film at a laid-back pace, so every stolen encounter — including a sexually charged scene involving a peach — has time to play out to its fullest, matched to soulful songs by Sufjan Stevens.
Hammer, a reliable hunk in “The Social Network” and “The Lone Ranger,” gives a strong, rakish performance as Elio’s enigmatic object of desire. And Stuhlbarg — who could, if predictions hold, end up in three Best Picture Oscar nominees, with this, “The Post” and “The Shape of Water” — is a graceful presence as Elio’s understanding father; his final speech is one for the ages.
But the name people will be calling after seeing “Call Me by Your Name” will be Chalamet’s. The 22-year-old takes his first starring role and makes it a treasure, as he distills the joys and tears of Elio’s romance into pure emotion that shines as brightly as the Italian sun.
Call Me by Your Name
A teen’s first love is crystallized in this rich melodrama, brimming with visual splendor and strong performances.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Jan. 12.
Rating • R for sexual content, nudity and some language.
Running time • 131 minutes.