There’s a pleasant, old-fashioned feel to Alpha.
“Call be by your name and I’ll call you by mine.” For a young man insecure in his sexuality (and just about everything else), saying his own name in a loving, passionate way has emotional power. Think of the most passionate romance of your life and then think about channeling some of that love back to yourself, building your own confidence and becoming an adult. This is only one aspect of the narrative of Luca Guadagnino’s breathtaking “Call Me By Your Name,” one of the best films of not just this year’s Sundance but all five years I’ve been coming to the festival. Much of the talk around Park City this year was about how this could have won the Palme d’Or if it had premiered at Cannes instead, and how people were surprised to see such a sophisticated, remarkable drama at a festival more typically known for indie comedies. Whatever the reason for its premiere in Park City instead, I’m grateful for the experience, aware that we only get a few films like this a year, if we’re lucky, from any part of the world.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a gay coming-of-age story in 1983, set “somewhere in Northern Italy.” Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is the 17-year-old son of a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has come to the region for both work and relaxation. They spend the summer archiving old documents and even discover an old statue in a nearby lake that fits the professor’s research into Greco-Roman culture. To assist in his work, the professor brings in an American assistant named Oliver (Armie Hammer), who looks physically like he was based on a Greek statue himself. Elio has a girlfriend but he’s immediately mesmerized by this God of a man, not just for his physical gifts but for his remarkable confidence.
Elio’s fascination with Oliver grows organically and beautifully, captured in a perfectly calibrated but heartfelt performance from Chalamet. It’s in the way that he moves a little uncomfortably when Oliver touches his shoulder, or watches him from afar on an Italian dance floor (Hammer dancing to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” in ‘80s fashion rivals Ralph Fiennes’ dance number from Guadagnino’s last film, “A Bigger Splash,” in terms of pure cinematic joy). Elio is also turned off by Oliver’s confidence at times, accusing him of being rude and callous. Although what’s clear, even though it is often unspoken, is that Elio can’t stop thinking about Oliver. And Oliver begins to feel the same way, even though he knows the relationship is inappropriate.
Rarely has the Italian countryside been captured with such grace and beauty as it is in this film. Guadagino and his team know that the setting here is essential to the sensuousness of the entire production and they use natural light and the beauty of the region as another character. It’s the kind of place that encourages passion and romance, almost serving as a catalyst for Elio’s awakening and the breakdown of Oliver’s resistance. To say that “Call Me By Your Name” looks great would be an understatement. When I think of it, I don’t just think of the human story but the natural background in which it is set—lush fields, old trees, and rippling water. It adds a tactile, sensory element to the film that can’t be understated. You can feel the wind and sun. You can smell the fruit in the trees.
This sense of nature taking course is at play in Chalamet’s revelatory performance as well. It is both one of the most subtle performances by a young actor in a very long time and so marvelously physical. Watch the way he shrinks or plays at being a callous teen in early scenes and then watch as his body literally responds to the passion and love he’s feeling. He’ll dance his way into a room, or bound up a flight of steps. And those eyes—from how they reflect his insecurity by often aiming down in early scenes to the way they will literally break your heart in the final ones. This is a stunning performance—lived-in, heartfelt, poignant and true. Hammer is very good here, and Stuhlbarg has what will be one of the best scenes of 2017, but it’s Chalamet’s film and he owns it.
Many of us have only learned to love ourselves when we are loved by another. “Call Me By Your Name” is a breathtaking love story, but it is also about a young boy figuring out not only who he is but how to love that person. It is unforgettable on every level, the kind of film that has the power to move and inspire. It is art of the highest caliber, and Sundance was lucky this year to have it.
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