The director Luca Guadagnino specializes in tales of trouble in paradise — of high-living hedonists in sinfully sensuous settings — but with “Call Me by Your Name,” he broadens his embrace of humanity while hitting new heights of cinematic bliss. A richly detailed sexual and emotional coming of age story, the movie’s based on a novel and it unfolds novelistically, through glances and asides and slowly accreting observations. You don’t fully realize that the youth at the story’s center has grown into a complex and confident young man until the film’s remarkable final shot.
The boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), is an American in Italy, living with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an antiquities professor, and Italian mother (Amira Casar). He’s 17 when the film opens, part kid, part bored teenager, an adult in chrysalis. The setting is the Lombardy region of northern Italy in high summer, simultaneously bursting with new life and as ancient as the bygone empires. The boy fools around with local friends and dabbles in flirtation and more with a girl named Marzia (Esther Garrel). Then his dad’s new research assistant turns up, and the movie halts in its tracks.
His name is Oliver (Armie Hammer). It’s the mid-1980s, and Oliver’s a familiar type, breezy and preppie and as rebellious as only a well-to-do 20-something American can be. The local girls are smitten, and he knows it. Elio is contemptuous at first — the interloper has taken over his bedroom, for one thing — and then angrily fascinated, and then honestly attracted, each step a conversation with himself that makes him feel more certain rather than less. By the time he and Oliver dare to start circling the subject in earnest, Elio is leading the dance.
“Call Me by Your Name” is frank about adolescent love and lust — the ecstasies, jealousies, melodrama, and pain. As in his earlier movies, “I Am Love” (2009) and “A Bigger Splash” (2015), Guadagnino amps up the ripeness of the European setting. The sunlight on the landscape glows as if seen for the first time, and the dinners and al fresco lunches fire a viewer’s senses. Food is sex in this movie — in one scene quite literally — and food is language and history (Oliver gives a brief etymology of the word “apricot” at one point), and love and sex have histories that go back millennia. The soundtrack yearns with a mix of classical, minimal, period-’80s and Sufjan Stevens originals, and the casual beauty of shirtless young men is echoed in the bronze statues Elio’s father pulls from the local waters. This is a film fully of heart, hormones, and mind.
There are times when the tempo dawdles, as if unwilling to leave the table. You may wish for more conflict. “Call Me by Your Name” has its own agenda and its studied, summery pace is almost entirely a virtue. André Aciman’s novel has been adapted by the venerable director James Ivory (“Howards End”) and it has an air of wistful but clear-minded looking back. The film’s point of view is Elio’s (and to a lesser extent Oliver’s), but one gets hints that the actual narrator is an older, unseen Elio, contemplating the summer that defined him not with nostalgia but gratitude and a lingering sense of loss.
You may not realize how strong the acting is until you replay the movie in your head later. And strong across the board, from Stuhlbarg and Casar as the kindest of possible parents (the former has a superb setpiece monologue toward the end) and Garrel as a betrayed but resilient playmate, to Hammer’s tricky portrayal of a sexual and romantic mentor who’s both more experienced and more naive than his younger lover.
Chalamet’s performance is even more subtle and organic, and you can only take its full measure by comparing Elio at the start of “Call Me by Your Name” to the bruised but self-assured young man of the final scenes. The film may be a fantasy but it’s one that’s lovely and wise, where hurt only sharpens one’s thirst for life and where the hero and his audience awaken to the unstoppable beauty of the world in which we’re privileged to live.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by James Ivory, based on a novel by André Aciman. Starring Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Esther Garrel, Amira Casar. At Kendall Square. 132 minutes. R (sexual content, nudity, some language). In English and Italian, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.