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Beauty surrounds intense, unsettling fling in ‘Call Me by Your Name’

Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio in "Call Me by Your Name." | SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

In the world of “Call Me by Your Name,” a summer spent in Northern Italy in the early 1980s is a slice of pure and absolute heaven on Earth.

Of course, there are a lot worse places and time periods from which to make that argument, but nevertheless.

In the hands of screenwriter James Ivory (adapting the book by Andre Aciman) and director Luca Guadagnino, every day in “Call Me by Your Name” is a perfect, lazy, worry-free day, practically devoid of any real-world concerns and absolutely dripping with intellectual and artistic stimulation, and all manner of sexual enticement.

About the only nod to realism is the steady presence of buzzing flies and other insects whenever the characters are enjoying yet another sumptuous outdoor brunch or late-night dinner, lolling by the pool or taking a dip in a nearby lake.

It’s a beautiful film, finely written and well acted, filled with gorgeous and for the most part vivacious and engaging people, including two young men — one in his mid-20s, one just 17 — who start off in a chippy, bickering manner but eventually succumb to their lust.

The movie paints their weeks-long tryst as pure love, but it came across more as an intense and passionate fling than a deep and once-in-a-lifetime romance to this reviewer.

Armie Hammer, looking like an Italian sculpture come to life, plays the 24-year-old Oliver, an American graduate student who comes to live with Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the professor’s family for the summer in their casually spectacular countryside home in the northern Italian countryside.

Apparently it is Professor Perlman’s habit to invite a favored student to live with him and his family each summer. Mrs. Perlman (Amira Casar) takes an immediate liking to Oliver and is forever making sure he has enough to eat and drink.

The good professor doesn’t seem to spend a whole lot of time mentoring Oliver, save for a few hours here and there and a day trip to inspect some newly discovered 19th century artifacts from a sunken ship. It’s as if Oliver has won a contest to spend the summer at an idyllic Italian villa, where he’ll be waited on hand and foot, given free room and board, and left alone to ride his bicycle around and pursue various hedonistic pleasures, from drink to dancing to the local ladies.

Ah, but Oliver doesn’t confine his urges to one gender. Oliver sizes up the Perlman’s 17-year-old son Elio, and long before Elio catches on, it’s clear Oliver has more than a big brotherly interest in the young man.

All of this handled with taste and grace, and yet one can’t help but feel a little uneasy with the manner in which the older, more sophisticated Oliver draws in young Elio. (As played by young Timothee Chalamet in a note-perfect performance, Elio is a brilliant student, a greatly talented musician and wise beyond his surface snark — but still, he’s a high schooler. He’s not nearly as wise as he believes himself to be.)

There’s not a moment in “Call Me by Your Name” that isn’t visually ripe, and few passages of dialogue that aren’t provocative and insightful. All three main male characters — Professor Perlman, graduate student Oliver and the professor’s teenage son Elio — are super intelligent beings, and all three are pleased with themselves to varying degrees. (Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s amusing, and sometimes one or more of them is so smug, somebody should pour a carafe of wine over their head.)

The female characters, from Mrs. Perlman to Elio’s girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel), come across as more sympathetic, but this is not their story. This is story is about the men, primarily Oliver and Elio, and the Summer of ’83.

When Elio falls for Oliver, we believe this 17-year-old believes he has found the center of his universe. Chalamet’s portrayal of a worldly but still not fully formed teenager is a tour de force.

As for Oliver … Hammer is a fine actor, and he plays the part well, but Oliver is so self-consumed, so in love with himself, I never quite bought that THIS was the love affair he’d remember the rest of his life. The great love of Oliver’s life most certainly would wind up being Oliver.

★★★

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by James Ivory, based on the novel by Andre Aciman. Rated R (for sexual content, nudity and some language). Running time: 131 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.