It’s become something of a film-festival truism that certain movies play better at high altitudes. Exhibit A would probably be “The Blair Witch Project,” which took Sundance by storm in 1999 and generated tremendous word-of-mouth buzz, but was widely considered a disappointment by those who flocked to see it in theaters. As the conventional wisdom goes, the movie’s lost-in-the-woods premise played like gangbusters in chilly, secluded Park City, Utah, in a way that it simply couldn’t replicate closer to sea level.
Which is not to suggest that films featuring frigid forest settings have some sort of Sundance advantage. The reverse, in fact, can also be true. For viewers experiencing the frost fatigue that always sets in mid-festival, a movie set over the course of, say, a long, hot summer in Italy — where young people lie about in the sun, imbibing fresh-squeezed fruit juice and the sight of each other’s beautiful bodies — might be just the thing to take the edge off that Park City chill.
And so it was excellent meteorological counterprogramming that the festival chose one of its coldest, snowiest days so far to unveil Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicatingly al fresco new movie, “Call Me by Your Name.” Adapted from André Aciman’s novel about a teenager’s summer of love in the 1980s, the film has all the wild beauty and simmering erotic languor we’ve come to expect from the director of “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” both of which followed characters looking for love in all the wrong (but fabulously beautiful and luxurious) places.
Elio (a terrific Timothée Chalamet) is the musically gifted 17-year-old son of an American Jewish intellectual (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his French wife (Amira Casar). The three live in a beautiful home in the northern Italian countryside, where each summer they receive an academic houseguest for six weeks. It’s the summer of 1983, and their visitor is an impossibly tall and handsome scholar named Oliver (Armie Hammer), whose intimidating self-assurance and lazy Americanisms (“Later!” is his preferred farewell) stirs in Elio something halfway between intense dislike and equally intense fascination.
“Call Me by Your Name,” which will be released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics, is a powerfully erotic and affecting love story, albeit one so closely and intimately observed that the term “slow burn” seems almost inadequate. Not a single moment, impulse or emotional revelation feels rushed. Guadagnino isn’t just one of the great sensualists of contemporary cinema; he has become a veritable deconstructionist of desire.
The undercurrents of lust, intrigue, jealousy and sexual anxiety flickering between Elio and Oliver are observed with a precision and playfulness that verge on the Hitchcockian. He knows exactly how to use a slowly panning camera to elongate the sexual tension of a scene, and how to use a lingering closeup — a pair of swim trunks hung up to dry, or a soft-boiled egg being cracked open — to heighten the material’s emotional temperature.
Lusciously beautiful surfaces and sexually suggestive foodstuffs are par for the course in Guadagnino’s work. It’s the compassion and wry wisdom of “Call Me by Your Name” — beautifully articulated by Stuhlbarg as Elio’s erudite, progressive-minded father — that catch you off-guard. The haunting final scene leaves Elio’s blissful summer behind, as if to remind us that, to everything, there is a season. I couldn’t have been the only viewer who exited Guadagnino’s movie and walked out into the freezing cold, feeling sadder but somehow, magically, warmer.
“Call Me by Your Name” would make a dreamy Sundance double bill with the U.S. dramatic competition entry “Beach Rats,” a very different but similarly restless portrait of a young man’s sexual explorations over the course of an extremely hot summer. Eliza Hittman’s assured second feature is set in present-day South Brooklyn, where Frankie (the British actor Harris Dickinson) idles away the hours with his posse, smoking weed, strolling the beaches and watching the fireworks at night. It’s under one of those fireworks shows that Frankie meets a girl named Simone (the bewitching Madeline Weinstein), and after a rocky start, he becomes her boyfriend.
In his personal downtime, though, Frankie goes online in search of (mostly older) men, though he’s initially too shy to pursue an in-person hook-up. But when a family tragedy strikes, Frankie overcomes his reluctance — at which point “Beach Rats” becomes a sweatily evocative portrait of liberated longing, but also its attendant feelings of lingering shame and confusion. Without giving away what happens, the film’ final passages are particularly suspenseful and provocative, as Frankie tries to gauge his friends’ tolerance levels without exactly telling them the truth.
Like Elio in “Call Me by Your Name,” Frankie never self-identifies as gay or straight; this is filmmaking that exposes the inadequacy of labels and, to some extent, the superfluousness of words. Hittman’s debut feature, “It Felt Like Love,” premiered in Sundance’s Next category in 2013, and it brought much the same sensual intimacy and visual confidence to its portrait of a 14-year-old girl’s sexual identity. “Beach Rats” is both a natural companion piece and also a worthy follow-up.