A Summer In Italy Simmers With Sexual Longing In 'Call Me By Your Name'

Nov 21, 2017
Originally published on November 22, 2017 12:12 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Call Me By Your Name" stars newcomer Timothee Chalamet as a teenager in Italy experiencing first love and Armie Hammer as the object of his desire, a graduate student from America. James Ivory wrote the screenplay. The film was an audience and critical favorite at the recent Berlin, Toronto and New York Film Festivals. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Call Me By Your Name" takes place in the summer of 1983 in northern Italy in an airy, rustic villa amid lakes and winding rivers. Sound floats in through windows of insects and birds, but mostly wind. The presence of nature can be felt in every frame. It's a movie in which young men are always doffing their shirts and jumping into sparkling water or riding on bicycles along dirt roads. I can't remember the mood of midsummer captured this way - lazy, but so vivid that every sound registers. The attraction between the two main characters is just as palpable.

Seventeen-year-old Elio spends summers at the villa with his translator mother and anthropology professor father. Oliver is a 24-year-old scholar invited to spend six weeks working with the professor and reading, eating al fresco and picking peaches off the trees. They bond over being Jewish, unusual in this part of Italy. Early on, Oliver gives a quick massage to the shirtless Elio and then heads off to play volleyball. But his touch lingers. Elio has flirted and made out with teenage girls hovering around the villa, but his feelings for Oliver are in a different sphere. Veteran filmmaker James Ivory did this adaptation of the novel by Andre Aciman. But the feel of "Call Me By Your Name" is different from Ivory's own formal, somewhat stiff movies. The Italian director Luca Guadagnino has created a free-floating mood in which every movement is suffused with sexual longing.

Timothee Chalamet plays Elio. You'll remember that name - trust me. It's the best performance I've seen this year. He's skinny and long-waisted and in early scenes makes Elio seem uncomfortable in his body. It's only when he gazes on Oliver that he seems to come out of his head. As Oliver, Armie Hammer has an easy, almost arrogant physicality. He's broad-shouldered, absurdly handsome and never wears long pants, only short shorts or swim trunks. He's hard for Elio, and us, to read. Is he toying with the teenager? Or is something stirring in him, too? There's friction in that uncertainty, heightened when Oliver dances provocatively with Elio's kind of, sort of girlfriend.

The next day in the garden, Elio plays a lovely piece by Bach on the guitar, then heads inside to the piano followed by Oliver, who watches from the doorway.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CALL ME BY YOUR NAME")

TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Elio, playing piano).

ARMIE HAMMER: (As Oliver) That sounds different. Did you change it?

CHALAMET: (As Elio) Well, I changed it a little bit.

HAMMER: (As Oliver) Why?

CHALAMET: (As Elio) I just played it the way Liszt would have played it if he'd altered Bach's version.

HAMMER: (As Oliver) Play that again.

CHALAMET: (As Elio) Play what again?

HAMMER: (As Oliver) The thing you played outside.

CHALAMET: (As Elio) Oh, you want me to play the thing I played outside?

HAMMER: (As Oliver) Please.

CHALAMET: (As Elio) Ah. (Playing piano).

HAMMER: (As Oliver) I can't believe you changed it again.

CHALAMET: (As Elio) Oh, I changed it a little bit.

HAMMER: (As Oliver) Yeah, why?

CHALAMET: (As Elio) I just played it the way Busoni would have played it if he'd altered Liszt's version.

HAMMER: (As Oliver) And what is wrong with Bach, the way Bach would have played...

CHALAMET: (As Elio) Bach never wrote it for the guitar. In fact, we're not even sure Bach wrote it at all.

HAMMER: (As Oliver) Forget I asked.

EDELSTEIN: You can hear the edge, the driving away and pulling back, and also the way in which high culture is woven through the film in the form of music and books and sculpture. "Call Me By Your Name" is hardly the first film set in Italy to juxtapose youth and beauty and fleeting seasons with ancient buildings and ruins, but I can't recall such a continuum between the ephemeral and the enduring. The love scenes between Elio and Oliver aren't explicit. They only feel as if they are. The title is said in a moment of passion. I take it to be Oliver's fervent desire to dissolve his self, to become one with Elio.

I should point out that Armie Hammer doesn't look 24, more like 29, which he was during filming. And that changes the dynamic. But his chemistry with Chalamet is easy and spontaneous. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Elio's father who gazes intently at his son, seems to know what's happening, and doesn't interfere. He and Elio have a revelatory conversation near the end. But it's the very last shot that stays in the mind, all but dissolving the boundary between viewer and actor. I'm going to call this movie by the name masterpiece.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be country singer-songwriter Margo Price. She'll have her guitar and sing some old and new songs. She has a new album called "All American Made," which includes a song about how her family lost the family farm. We'll close with a song from the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARGO PRICE SONG, "WEAKNESS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEAKNESS")

MARGO PRICE: (Singing) Sometimes I'm Virginia Woolf. Sometimes I'm James Dean. Sometimes I'm my only friend and my own worst enemy. My right hand never knows what my left one's going to do, but I never meant to cause the harm that I have done to you. Sometimes I drink beaujolais. Sometimes I drink gin. Sometimes the whiskey does me right. Sometimes it does me in. But you've seen all my darkest shades and everything I've been. Still, I can hurt myself much more than anyone else can. I'm worried for no reason. I'm worried and I'm blue. There's no better cure for it than being next to you. I can't hide what I am. I guess it's plain to see sometimes my weakness is stronger than me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.