If the chemistry between the stars is how we judge the quality of romantic films, it's likely that the striking dynamics of Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in "Call Me by Your Name" could earn director Luca Guadagnino a Nobel Prize. The bubbling strain between the leading men is the kind of intimate, authentic work that feels several steps above movie acting.
Set in an atmospheric country estate in northern Italy in the languid, sun-kissed summer of 1983, the film is an emotionally rich reflection on the mystery, longing, triumph and heartbreak of first love.
Chalamet, a newcomer who is clearly a star of tomorrow, gives a naturalistic performance as 17-year-old Elio Perlman, who faces that changing time of life with volatile nervous excitement. He's the son of cultured Jewish Italian-American parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) who are summering at the family's villa near the seaside where his father, an eminent historian, is dredging up ancient Roman sculptures.
Elio spends his days reading poetry, swimming and playing Bach and Berlioz in wildly different styles every time he touches the piano. That's a nice indication of the molten state of his inner life. The drenching sunlight isn't the main thing keeping all of the nearby teenagers in heat. It's hormonal confusion that puzzles even multilingual prodigies like Elio. There is a good deal of wisdom in the glances he gets from his parents, watching nearly silent from the sidelines as their son tries to make sense of himself.
Education is the cornerstone of the Perlman family's values, and it appears in unexpected form with the arrival of Oliver (Hammer), who has a lot to teach Elio. Joining the group in their summer house, he is a 24-year-old graduate student working as a research assistant for Elio's father. Oliver, who is also a Jew temporarily stepping into this conspicuously Christian land, is not only Adonis handsome and sophisticated, but he radiates a personal magnetism that could pull the Leaning Tower of Pisa up off its tilt.
As shy, shrinking Elio and cool, conceited Oliver take one another's measure, a sense of uncertainty edges the frame of the film. There's much here to read between the lines as they spend more time side by side, holding conversations that grow into confidences and more, unfolding their relationship patiently. Elio confesses to Oliver that he may be book-smart but he's unschooled about the things that matter. "What things?" Oliver asks. "You know what things," Elio responds.
Could Elio's infatuation with this mysterious stranger in skintight shorts go unrequited? Given his embarrassing indiscretions — fondling Oliver's used underwear and taking a virginal high schooler's practice run with a ripe peach, something out of "American Pie" — will he be rejected as a laughingstock?
While his dramatic love story offers several ribald chuckles, Guadagnino is too humane to hold anyone up for mockery. He understands that sensuality's first explorations can be exciting and dangerous at the same time. There is no antagonist pushing the pair apart. What slows their getting together to a cautious pace is their fears of rejection. In his earlier films "A Bigger Splash" and "I Am Love," Guadagnino showed a skill for representing characters' shortcomings while offering them sincere respect. He stays true to those values here.
This summer of desire will not last forever, and he wants us to consider what memories remain when all that can connect them is a phone call from far away. The question sets the stage for the film's two triumphant closing moments. Stuhlbarg delivers a final speech that is the finest, warmest, most profound parent-to-child monologue in memory. It's hard to think of any way to top that, but Chalamet's stunningly expressive long shot during the end credits raises the film to a still higher level. As he sits and watches the fireplace alone, he reveals Elio's feelings of sadness and elation without uttering a single word. It's a suitable ending for a film that leaves you feeling a bit too dazed to rapidly take stock of your emotions or catch your breath.