As numerous are the ways in which “I Am Love” director Luca Guadagnino’s latest — and most personal — work advances the canon of gay cinema, none impresses more than the fact that it’s not necessarily a gay movie at all. Rather, Guadagnino’s ravishingly sensual new film, “Call Me by Your Name” — adapted from André Aciman’s equally vivid, 1983-set coming-out/coming-of-age novel — is above all a story of first love, one that transcends the same-sex dynamic of its central couple, much as “Moonlight” so recently did.
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics shortly before its Sundance premiere, this Proustian account of an Italo-American 17-year-old’s transformative summer may not be as commercial as that film, it ought to be a word-of-mouth art-house hit all the same — especially when talk turns to what teenage Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and American summer guest Oliver (Armie Hammer) do with a ripe peach.
Had the film been made in 2007, when the book was published, its steamy forbidden-fruit scene would have instantly landed an NC-17 rating. Today, neither audiences nor the MPAA seem quite so squeamish about such demonstrations of human passion, no matter how non-traditional. If anything, the scandalous moment should only help the film reach its fullest potential audience — as will its sun-blissed Lombardy location, offering U.S. audiences a fantasy getaway to Northern Italy.
Embracing the spirit, if not the letter of Aciman’s novel, Guadagnino and co-writers Walter Fasano and James Ivory (of the Merchant Ivory dynasty that brought us “Maurice” and “A Room With a View”) have resituated the action ever so slightly. The film takes place at the Jewish family’s vacation home, a spacious old villa not unlike the one seen in the Patricia Highsmith-esque, Guadagnino-produced short “Diarchy.” Every summer, Elio’s professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hires a promising young doctoral student to assist with his research. This year, the Perlmans’ house guest is a 24-year-old buck of the kind that might once have graced the pages of Physique Pictorial magazine.
Oliver’s arrival stirs something in Elio, though the teen is slow to confront his feelings. On one hand, he’s compelled to spend as much time with the newcomer as possible, serving as his guide on bike rides to town and frequent trips to the local swimming hole. At the same time, he’s protective of his own feelings, unsure how to read Oliver’s casual American attitude (the way his hand caresses Elio’s shoulder, or the aloof “Later” with which he signs off every conversation).
Though viewers are sure to read much into the strange chemistry taking shape between Elio and Oliver, Guadagnino allows these feelings to build gradually. Meanwhile, he concentrates his attention so much on surface — a