Set over the course of a lush and sensuous Italian summer, when peaches hang heavy from the trees, Call Me by Your Name dares you not to swoon for it. And there’s no real reason you shouldn’t. It’s a movie of deep feeling, delicate performances, and attentive camerawork. I mostly fell for the film, but with an air of caution. The movie is so seductive, you might not notice that there is a troubling streak of hedonism at its core.
Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino, opens with 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) rolling his eyes at his family’s familiar summer routine. Each year, they open their 17th-century villa to a visiting graduate student, who will work with Elio’s archeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) for the summer. To add insult to injury, the guest is assigned Elio’s bedroom, forcing him to move to the sparse spare space next door. (“The usurper,” Elio whispers when this year’s guest arrives.)
That visitor, the 24-year-old Oliver, is played by Armie Hammer, who gives a performance so full of easy confidence, bright energy, and lust for life that he seems to have been beamed down from the sun (think Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley). Oliver is not only intelligent (he passes the sly etymology test Elio’s father gives each summer), he’s also an impressive physical specimen, not far off from the athletic male statues that Elio’s father is dredging from a nearby lake. And Oliver knows all this, considering he conducts himself as if the world was made for his pleasure. He attacks a hard-boiled egg with such gusto that he demolishes it; he chugs the apricot juice Elio’s mother (Amira Casar) brings him in a single gulp. Holding back from another moment of devouring later in the film—one that would have far greater consequences—he says, “I know myself … I want to be good.”
Oliver at first annoys Elio, but soon it becomes clear that this instinctual response is a form of denial. Irritation turns to jealousy turns to admiration turns to desire, and in a bravura single-take sequence during which Elio and Oliver speak in code to each other from opposite sides of a war monument, it becomes clear: they share an aching desire to be together.
It’s worth pausing here to acknowledge that Chalamet frequently manages to portray annoyance, jealousy, admiration, and desire all in a single moment. It’s an extraordinary performance from a young actor, at once intuitive and calculating and almost too cocky for its own good. He captures both Elio’s precociousness—a musical prodigy, he might be Oliver’s intellectual equal—and his vulnerability. Chalamet has a scene involving a peach that will be much-discussed, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s sensual and shocking, yes, but notice the inner confusion that Elio expresses when he falls into Oliver’s arms.
Chalamet is at once intuitive and calculating and almost too cocky for his own good.
This scene suggests a gap in emotional maturity between them, a reality that isn’t changed by the fact that Elio would have been considered an adult under Italian law. I wish the movie had given more attention to this moral dimension of their relationship. Call Me By Your Name arrived in theaters shortly after the Harvey Weinstein revelations prodded a much-needed reconsideration of contemporary sexual ethics. And though Oliver and Elio are not analogous to the abuses of power committed by Weinstein and others (the movie is also careful to establish Elio’s consent during the sex scenes), their relationship still raises pertinent questions about how we conduct ourselves as sexual beings. Yet the movie barely considers sexual ethics at all.
In its embrace of hedonism, Call Me by Your Name prioritizes the urgent desires of the individual over any sort of lasting relationship. If Elio, in particular, suffers as a result (and the movie concludes with a staggering single-take close-up that suggests he does), Call Me by Your Name romanticizes that pain as the price of having loved. Elio’s father has a monologue near the end—at once wonderful and tricky—in which he affirms that his son is “good,” while also encouraging him to pursue his passions while he can, before the detritus of middle age sets in. Nowhere does the movie consider another way of living, in which the sacrificing of personal desire, especially on the part of the more emotionally mature and experienced Oliver, might have been a better path. Rapturously made and performed as it may be, Call Me by Your Name fosters a way of looking at the world that’s worth questioning. It seems to me that imbibing as Oliver does, and Elio is encouraged to do, brings us closer to the sexualized abuse of power, rather than further away from it.