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Review: "Call Me By Your Name"

Luca Guadagnino has become the J.D. Salinger of Italian cinema. I mean this in that he tells stories about affluent high society people, with lots of money and resources at their disposal, who still suffer from a failure to establish meaningful connections in their lives. Holden Caulfield felt such a void in Salinger's "The Catcher in The Rye." Similarly, Guadagnino's previous films I Am Love and A Bigger Splash followed protagonists (both played by Oscar winner Tilda Swinton) who were in a purgatory of disenchantment, the former for physical affection and the latter for desired privacy. Guadagnino is not a novelist but fortunately as a filmmaker he knows how to fill the page of the screen, usually with drop dead gorgeous locations and an impeccable ear for using music (remember Ralph Fiennes dancing to "Emotional Rescue" by The Rolling Stones?).

In his latest feature Call Me By Your Name Guadagnino presents to us another illustrious group of high class individuals but this time he switches the point of view to be from their seventeen-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet). Elio is Guadagnino's closest incarnation of Holden; sharp for his age, curious, a bit of a smart-ass and quietly terrified of living his life as a phony. For Elio that phoniness comes in the form of neglecting his own heart and desire. As the film starts, Elio's family is awaiting the arrival of the newest grad student who will study under their father Mr. Perlman's (a university professor) tutelage over the summer. The year is 1983 and the Perlman family has a stunning countryside home somewhere in northern Italy. The student arrives one morning, exhausted. He is a tall and handsome twenty-something. His name is Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio sees Oliver for the first time from his bedroom window. Elio is transfixed but he hides it well. Nevertheless, the adoration has been set in motion.

What's really striking about Call Me By Your Name is that it takes its time to get to its steamy and potent central romance. For much of the first half of the film, we're given an affectionate look at the idleness of summer afternoons, the throwaway transactions of wining and dining house guests and the novelty of finding the least damaging way to mature from adolescence. As the professor and patriarch Mr. Perlman, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) never once strikes a false note of sincerity and we're lead to believe that Elio hasn't embraced his sexuality more because of the outside world as opposed to any pushback from his parents. There's even a passage of the film where Elio tries to play ball and lose his virginity to his close female friend Marzia (Esther Garrel) that results in both a failure of amor and a success in acceptance.

By the time we get to Elio and Oliver succumbing to their unfettered attraction to each other, we really feel like we've gotten to know every corner of Elio as a person. Oliver is still a mystery to Elio at times and that's appropriate because as a figure for longing, he retains surprises up his sleeve up through the film's denouement. Guadagnino handles their courtship with loving framing too. As the pair feel suspended in angst and quiet lust, Guadagnino and the Director of Photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) shoot their close-ups in bed upside down. It creates a fascinating tension as they speak and embrace each other. It's exciting and quietly heartbreaking.

Is Call Me By Your Name a perfect film? No. It's a little inflated at times, with the filmmaking team embellishing a bit much in their surroundings, getting distracted by the picturesque locale, but that's not the worst crime a film can have. The final stretch could've been tightened up a little more. Still, it's got a great soundtrack with two original songs by Sufjan Stevens that deserve award recognition. Most importantly, Call Me By Your Name is a film that respects its characters. It may not have the ribbon-tied happy ending that every pair of lovers aspires to arrive at but that's part of the point. We go through this life, rich or poor, trying to make the great currency known as the human connection a very real thing. To deny yourself the love that you seek is unjust. Worst is to ignore it. For ignoring pain is the grossest deceit. Or as Stuhlbarg puts it so beautifully near the end of the film, “To feel nothing so as not to feel anything -- what a waste.”