Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?
Ripeness is all—everything, the whole orchard—in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name,” a sensual movie about first love based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman. Guadagnino, responsible for the operatic eroticism of “I Am Love” and the rock ’n’ roll ribaldry of “A Bigger Splash,” takes a classical approach with “Call Me by Your Name,” a lyrical study of sexual confusion and awakening that takes place in 1983.
Set in Italy’s lake district, near Bergamo, the film centers on Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the gangly 17-year-old son of an American archaeologist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a French translator (Amira Casar). Their summer home looks out on an orchard fecund with apricots and peaches so immodestly juicy that they bring a blush to the cheek. The film delights in its own sensory overload.
Into this atmosphere of peak ripeness enters the “usurper,” Elio’s genial designation for the postgrad scholar who comes to work for his father in the summer and for whom Elio gives up his room for the smaller chamber adjacent. This season, the usurper is Oliver (Armie Hammer). The 6-foot-5-inch American golden boy resembles both the classical statuary the archaeologist studies and a peacock in full plumage. He arouses in Elio many contradictory emotions, among them jealousy, intimidation, fraternal sympathy and unadulterated lust. While Elio’s family doesn’t announce its Jewish faith, Elio marvels that Oliver casually wears a Star of David around his neck.
For Elio, the precocious musician and musicologist who thought that this summer he just might seduce Marzia, his longtime girlfriend, Oliver’s presence is discombobulating. Why does superconfident Oliver strut around the property shirtless? Why is ordinarily introverted Elio mirroring (or is it peacocking?) Oliver’s state of semi-undress? Why does Elio think more about Oliver than Marzia? Does the younger man detect a flirtation between his father and the post-doc? And do the young men keep diving into pools and lakes to cool off from the heat that’s generated between them?
Veteran director James Ivory, the screenwriter here, has adapted Aciman’s novel with delicacy and discretion. Guadagnino’s visual style, on the other hand, is so swoony that one might require a fainting couch. These tonal extremes are surprisingly well matched, as they mirror those of the principal characters. Oliver behaves discreetly toward Elio while the younger man carries on at a fever pitch.
Theirs is mostly a nonverbal communication. Oliver expresses his feelings through eloquent English. Though Elio is fluent in French, Italian and English, he impresses Oliver through music. Did I say sensory overload? Make that multisensory. For all of the film’s lust and sex and love, the lovemaking is not explicit.
This tsunami of desire rises with Oliver’s scheduled return to the United States, which, ultimately, leaves Elio in its undertow. The film’s penultimate scene, a sequence between father and son, remarkable for its candor and emotion, is so tender and insightful that it provides the film with its coda. That is, there are people we meet in life who are instrumental in our self-discovery. And whatever happens between us and those helping friends, we should be grateful for knowing them and, ultimately, better knowing ourselves.
“Call Me by Your Name” opens in theaters Friday.