From the opening frames/credits sequence, the notion of the impossibly perfect body-beautiful (in this case, males from antiquity sculptures whose creators boldly revelled in sensuous curves, incredibly defined musculature and shameless genitalia that would delight any ruler—kings or all manner of queens) whose subjects would hasten to agree that their supreme leader was most certainly chiselled from the same stone—flattery does have its uses.
As the curtain rises on Luca Guadagnino’s story of sudden, at times confusing love rises, viewers find themselves “somewhere” in the superbly photogenic Northern Italy in 1983.
On an inherited country estate (replete with orchards and swimming holes) Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg wisely holds his fire until the emotional knockout monologue) and his free-minded wife (given an easy and convincing turn by Amira Casar) are eagerly awaiting the arrival of this summer’s research assistant to the distinguished anthropologist.
Also looking forward to a fresh face in and around the villa is 17-year-old, accomplished pianist (classical music plays an important role in the underlying tracks) who never seems in need of practice, Elio (Timothée Chalamet’s curly locks and classic, seldom fully covered physique sparks an instant link to the allure of young beauties of either sex) is hoping that his dad’s intellectual helper might just be interesting enough to justify giving up his bedroom for a thirtysomething Americano. (Playing Oliver, Armie Hammer doesn’t come across nearly as complex as his on-again, off-again character should be.)
Then, before you can say, “Everyone onto the pitch and into the pool,” the two men exchange friendly glances and a couple of beat-too-long, hand-on-bare-shoulder touches that deftly light the slow-burning flame of those—like many of the ancient Greeks alluded to earlier—who are infused with the love that dare not speak its name.
Certainly not a new storyline, but in James Ivory’s ever-capable screenplay (based on the book from the wily imagination of André Aicman) the drama unfolds at a leisurely pace, letting the potential lovers take their deliberately sweet time before facing head on what both of them feel very early on but struggle mightily with before allowing their hearts to speak the truth.
Along the journey, both beaus have their respective rolls in the hay with the local young women (notably Esther Garrel as the comely Marzia). However, one major narrative flaw is Elio tasting from the well of female carnage mere hours before a midnight tryst with his week’s long fantasy man. Later, Marzia proves to be far more mature in the encounter with her sometime lover as she displays generous amounts of understanding and forgiveness that the selfish teen doesn’t deserve.
Inevitably at summer’s end, Oliver must leave but not before a credibility-stretching two-day sojourn for the pair far away from prying family eyes.
From that point, the film seems to flounder, losing its purposeful sense of direction.
Happily, the good professor saves both his saddened son and the movie by delivering a fatherly “lecture” that leaves his soul bare and fuels Elio with the sense and knowledge that so few fail to realize, much less grasp:
You two—even in your youth—have had, if only fleetingly, the sort of relationship that we lesser mortals (especially as our bodies have, inevitably, gone to seed—yet one more reference to the opening parade of statues) can never hope to achieve. So lick your wounds, dust yourself off and get back into the search for the next Mr. Right.”
Sage thoughts indeed, for what have we all got to lose but a broken heart?