“Is it better to speak or to die?” That’s the core question of “Call Me By Your Name,” which surfaces in a scene where a character reads the words of Marguerite of Navarre in “The Heptaméron,” but it’s an idea at the heart of all queer narratives. It’s been especially present in queer cinema, where muteness and survival are often the most bittersweet bedfellows. But “Call Me By Your Name” not only quotes Marguerite’s words, it suffuses them into every fiber of its being. It’s a great film because of how lucidly it poses her question, and an essential one because of how courageously it answers it.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino with all of his usual cool (“I Am Love”) and adapted from André Aciman’s beloved 2007 novel of the same name, the rapturous “Call Me By Your Name” nearly rates alongside recent LGBT phenomenons “Carol” and “Moonlight,” matching the artistry and empathy with which those new masterworks untangled the repressive desire of same-sex attraction.
It’s 1983, “somewhere in Northern Italy.” The height of summer, and all of the neighborhood teenagers are in heat. Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet, keeping the promise he showed in “Miss Stevens” last September) is still a virgin. A 17-year-old American whose father, a local celebrity, is an eminent professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elio has sprouted from the soil like the apricot trees that surround his family’s villa, and he’s impatiently waiting to bloom. Scrawny enough to be mistaken for a child but sophisticated enough to be mistaken for a man, Elio is a multilingual music prodigy who’s more comfortable with Bach and Berlioz than he is in his own body. He knows everything and nothing. But he’s about to get one hell of an education.
Every summer, Elio’s father flies out a graduate student to stay at the villa and help him with his research — this year’s intern is Oliver (Armie Hammer, as sensational here as he was in “The Social Network,” but similarly a touch too old for the part). Oliver is 24 and his body is an epic unto itself, as big as any one of the ancient statues that have been dredged up from the local seas. Arrogant, eager, and almost suspiciously handsome for an aspiring historian, the mysterious new visitor often seems as though he got lost on his way to a Patricia Highsmith novel. While much of the film feels stretched between the feverish eros of Bertolucci, the budding warmth of Mia Hansen–Løve, and the affected stoicism of James Ivory (who, at 88, has a co-writing credit on this screenplay), a thin shadow of suspense creeps along the outer edges of each frame, priming viewers for a very different kind of pivot than the one Guadagnino deployed during the third act of “A Bigger Splash.”
Elio and Oliver grow closer as the summer sinks toward its dog days — at first they share only a bathroom, the skinny adolescent looking at his unpredictable new friend as though he can’t understand how they could be the same species, let alone be interested in the same thing. But commonalities and semi-secrets soon emerge: For one thing, they’re both Jews in a land of goys. Oliver, no doubt aware that he looks like the winner of Hitler’s master race, wears a Star of David necklace underneath his shirt, a barely visible emblem of his otherness. The Perlmans, on the other hand, are what Elio’s father describes as “Jews of discretion” (one of the funnier lines in a movie that’s laced with a sharp sense of humor), but the strangeness of celebrating Hanukkah within spitting distance of Vatican City eventually makes its mark.
As the film progresses, Elio and Oliver begin to share more tangible things: Bike rides, errant touches, an unknown desire to have sex with one another (that last one is a biggie). Crucially, however, Elio is as conflicted about his own passions as he is those of the boy next door. His tastes are molten and volatile — he performs the same piano piece in a wildly different style every time he plays it, much to Oliver’s amused frustration. When he’s not busy gawking at his brawny infatuation, he’s enthusiastically trying to deflower the French girl down the street (Esther Garrell, of the New Wave Garrells), who wears her wardrobe of summer dresses like she’s trying to shame away the other seasons.
Telling this story with the same characteristically intoxicating capriciousness that has come to define his work, Guadagnino doesn’t dwell on looks of questionably requited longing. He’s not Todd Haynes and — with the possible exception of a long take mid-movie that follows the two leads around a fountain and endows the space between them with a palpably physical sense of attraction and denial — he doesn’t try to be. Instead, he stays attuned to the raw energy of trying to feel someone out without touching them, of what it’s like to live through that one magical summer where the weather is the only part of your world that doesn’t change every day.
Rippling with nervously excited piano compositions and shot with immeasurable sensuality by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Arabian Nights”), “Call Me By Your Name” is a full-bodied film that submits all of its beauties to the service of one simple true: The more we change, the more we become who we are. Like the Latin prefixes that Oliver and Mr. Perlman trace back to their roots or the antiquated artworks that resonate because of how much the world has changed since their creation, Elio learns that growth — however wild or worrisome it might seem at the time — is the greatest gift that he can give himself.
Watching him slowly come to that realization is an unforgettable and enormously moving experience because of how the film comes to realize it, too. Guadagnino lives for the climactic portion of this story, when feelings are finally transmuted into action and Oliver’s true nature breaks through the marble bust of his body (Hammer’s warmth in these scenes is extraordinary). The details are best experienced for yourself, but it’s safe to say that movie lives up to the book’s steamy reputation, and Chalamet and Hammer throw themselves at each other with the clumsy abandon of first love. Growingly increasingly divorced from its source material as it goes along, the final beats of Guadagnino’s adaptation galvanize two hours of simmering uncertainty into a gut-wrenchingly wistful portrait of two people trying to find themselves before it’s too late. As Elio’s father puts it in a heart-stopping monologue that every parent might want to memorize for future use: “Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste.”
Leaving us with one of the gorgeous new songs that Sufjan Stevens wrote for the film, this achingly powerful story — a brilliant contribution to the queer cinema canon — breathes vibrant new life into the answer that Marguerite of Navarre gave to her own question. “I would counsel all such as are my friends to speak and not die,” she said, ““for ’tis a bad speech that cannot be mended, but a life lost cannot be recalled.”
“Call Me By Your Name” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.