“Call Me by Your Name” is a love story that seems, on the surface (and a ripe and gorgeous surface it is), to be all about the lyrical sensations of erotic and emotional discovery. The back-and-forth glances that could mean everything or nothing. The slow-burn calculus of mutual seduction. The tactility of flesh and food and freedom and summer. The ache of a desire that only expands the more it’s fulfilled. (And damn, what about that peach?) Yet if “Call Me by Your Name” were nothing more than the swoony tale of a high-art summer fling, it might not amount to all that much. The film’s true subject, in almost every scene, is what it looks like, and what it means, when everything the two people in question are doing and thinking and feeling has to remain hidden.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the dreamy, bookish 17-year-old son of an antiquities professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), whiling away the summer on his family’s lavish villa in Northern Italy, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the tall, suave, and handsome doctoral candidate who’s staying there on a six-week research fellowship, take a good long time to zero in on their shared desire. That’s because they’re speaking in code. It’s not just that they never talk about their feelings for each other; they barely talk about the fact that they never talk about their feelings. (Even their hiding remains hidden.) The entire movie is a poeticized meditation on the experience of the closet: what it’s like to live there, how it once worked (even when things were starting to open up), and why it had to go away. (Not that it completely has, obviously.) “Call Me by Your Name” is a love story, but it’s really a spy movie. Right to the end, its drama erupts out of what happens, and what gets spoken, between the lines.
Almost everything that transpires between Elio and Oliver has the furtive, heightened quality of a tradecraft secret: their first physical contact during a volleyball game, when Oliver gives Elio an impromptu shoulder rub that may or may not be sexually suggestive (it’s confirmed only later that it was a purposefully dropped hint); the fantastically oblique dialogue they have in the middle of the town square, when they’re completely alone yet still act as if their words are being surreptitiously recorded — a remarkable sequence that the director, Luca Guadagnino, stages with a slow long circular camera movement that might have come out of a Spielberg espionage thriller, with a line like “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” veering about as close to a confession of desire as anyone in the movie gets; the swimming, biking, and lolling-in-the-grass sequences, a case of would-be lovers hiding in plain sight; and the final phone conversation, in which the revelation of an impending marriage is treated as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Elio and Oliver both have involvements with women, which could make referring to either character as “gay” sound reductive. Yet their affair defines them both: It’s the love that Oliver embraces but can’t accept — and the one that allows Elio to open the door to who he is.
The singular pull, and quiet power, of “Call Me by Your Name” relates to the fact that nearly every movie you could think of that deals with the hiding — that is, the suppression — of gay life carries an overt message. “Brokeback Mountain,” for instance, was a romantic tragedy that depicted the price of sexual freedom as nothing less than survival. (The price of being openly gay was being murdered.) “Far from Heaven,” a heightened soap opera of dazzlingly ironic sincerity, was rooted in the anguished yearning of Dennis Quaid’s character — an executive on the down-low who experiences his erotic longings as a curse from which he can only dream of escaping.
“Call Me by Your Name,” by contrast, features no overt element of moral reckoning and, significantly, no component of shame. The film unfolds in a tranquil art-film Eden of robust sensual delight, and the distinguishing feature of Armie Hammer’s performance is its cool, calm, and collected charisma; his presence hums with a blithely macho low-voiced command, the way Jon Hamm’s did on “Mad Men.” Oliver treats the high secrecy of his desires not as a curse but as a law of the universe, and we have to guess a bit as to his motivations. How much of his outwardly “straight” identity comes from the fact that he’s worried about disrupting his tenure track, and how much comes from the fact that his father, as he says at one point, would have him committed otherwise? Since the film is set in 1983, 14 years after the Stonewall riots unleashed the era of gay liberation, a part of us wonders: If you’re so damn confident, why not just be who you are?
Yet the slight murkiness of Oliver’s motivations becomes part of the film’s power. He remains a spiritual stranger — to us, to Elio, and to himself. “Call Me by Your Name,” in presenting a “well-adjusted” gay character who projects no self-loathing yet is unwilling to fully be himself, creates an expressionist vision of what the closet is: not simply a prison, but a precise and complex state of being that, for a long time, defined the way that a lot of people lived — and still does. The movie doesn’t attack the closet; it humanizes the closet.
The critique, though, is implicit. For who, in the end, wants to live that way? Oliver, sensual and liberated yet finally compartmentalized, is an archangel of erotic mystery who swoops down to tap Elio on the shoulder and bring him to life. And though Oliver comes on like the fierce, wise, and all-knowing one, it’s really Elio, in his confusion, who emerges as the more enlightened character. Oliver is content to suppress his life force — that’s the only way that makes sense to him — but Elio represents the dawn of a new way. That fire he’s staring into during the film’s extraordinary final shot isn’t simply the memory of the passion he shared with Oliver. It’s the life of passion that awaits him in the future. It’s the burn of a desire that’s untrapped.