Review: 'Call Me By Your Name'

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together

2017 / Italy, France, USA, Brazil / 132 min. / Directed by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select cities on Nov. 24, 2017; opens locally on Dec. 22, 2017

Andrew Wyatt

Broadly speaking, romantic coming-of-age dramas—which are typically centered on a formative, head-over-heels relationship—often follow one of two approaches. Some films aim primarily for social and emotional realism, erecting an authentic depiction of the way that romance blossoms (and, frequently, withers) between young people (e.g., Summer with Monika [1953], Summer of 42 [1971], Raising Victor Vargas [2003]). Other features take a more poetic but no less genuine track, focusing instead on conjuring the intoxicating, almost agonizingly intense sensation of love (e.g., The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [1964], Heavenly Creatures [1994], Moonrise Kingdom [2012]).

If one were obliged to identify the most striking achievement of director Lucia Guadagnino’s sensuous and bittersweet new film, Call Me by Your Name, it would be the feature’s elegant reconciliation of these two cinematic modes. Guadagnino, screenwriter James Ivory, and the film’s lead performers all exhibit a sharp attentiveness to the nuances of young, hormonal attraction: the uncertain circling, the awkward flirtation, the green-eyed sullenness, and the embarrassing erotic preoccupations. At the same time, Call Me by Your Name is positively drunk on the exhilaration of having one’s desires cherished and reciprocated. The feature achieves this mood primarily through its vivid setting: a sumptuous, sun-kissed Italian countryside as idyllic as any painting by Claude Lorrain. Guadagnino’s film looks like idealized young love feels. It’s as warm, lush, and timeless as a sacred Apollonian grove.

Adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by American writer André Aciman, Call Me by Your Name depicts an erotically momentous summer in the life of precocious Jewish-American adolescent Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). It is 1983, and the 17-year-old Elio is spending the season at the Italian estate owned by his academic parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). It’s not exactly a life of privation: The boy whiles away the balmy Mediterranean days by lounging around the villa, exploring the countryside, and taking idle jaunts into the nearby town.

Elio is quiet but also bright and curious; he’s not prone to the usual brand of mopey adolescent boredom. He reads literature, composes for the piano, and socializes with his parents and their friends in a manner that suggests a like-minded adult, rather than a scrawny high school senior. However, he also has companions his age—including Marzia (Esther Garrel), his eager, dimpled French girlfriend. Fortunately for Elio’s nascent sex life, the Perlmans take an open-minded, deferential approach to parenting. They seem to genuinely respect and cherish their son, their only aspiration for him being that he grows to understand himself.

Such a scenario is hardly the usual raw material for an angst-ridden tale of forbidden love. Indeed, there’s little in Ivory’s screenplay or Chalamet’s performance early in the film that suggests the emotional hell of stifled longings and repressed identity. However, Elio still betrays a distinct restiveness that is not alleviated by the release valve of his summer romance with Marzia. It’s as though he’s waiting with vague impatience for his adult life to begin, even if he is still uncertain about exactly what shape that life will take 

Into this gravid emotional moment strolls Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who arrives at the villa to spend the summer assisting Mr. Perlman with his archaeological research. Formidably tall, athletic, and Dartmouth-handsome, the 24-year-old Oliver resembles a Yankee Adonis. Elio is therefore faintly nonplussed to learn that the grad student is, like the Perlmans, a “Jew of discretion”. Oliver is a match for Elio’s erudition (and self-regard), but he’s also everything that the professor’s son is not: confident, relaxed, gregarious, and disarmingly glib. His penchant for abruptly departing conversations with the flippant farewell, “Later!”, is a source of amused preoccupation for the Perlmans.

Elio initially seems to resent Oliver’s forceful charisma and strapping self-possession—not to mention the loss of his own bedroom, which he is compelled to vacate so that it can be converted into Oliver’s guest quarters. Before long, however, Elio finds that he has grown unexpectedly enamored with his father’s assistant. Consistent with the approach taken by many lovesick adolescent boys, Elio affects a studied nonchalance as a flimsy cover, while blatantly arranging his daily routine so that he can spend as much time as possible in Oliver’s company. For his part, the older man doesn’t seem to notice Elio’s coded flirtations at first; his demeanor towards the boy is approachable and flattering but also somewhat aloof. (Elio’s embarrassed, smoldering jealously reaches its peak when Oliver begins a fling with a donna from town.)

Eventually, however, Oliver acknowledges that he is aware of Elio’s amorous signals. In an exquisitely composed and emotionally dizzying scene, the two young men stroll around separate sides of a war memorial in a piazza. The camera slowly pans, maintaining Elio in the foreground and Oliver in the distance; their pace, like their conversation, is outwardly languid yet anxiously calculated. In the coyest possible language, Elio reveals his emergent gay identity, in the hopes that this will open the door for Oliver to concede to a mutual attraction. This is, by a decisive margin, the most pivotal scene in Guadagnino’s film, at least tonally speaking. It’s the moment when Call Me by Your Name’s heady mood shifts from a steady late afternoon wine buzz to episodic upsurges of wild, all-consuming euphoria.

Oliver admits to feelings for Elio but is initially reluctant to pursue them; after a passionate lakeshore kiss, the older man puts the brakes on further physical intimacy between them. However, there is a sense of inevitability to their romantic relationship from the moment that Oliver accepts Elio’s first caress with a grateful, hungering whimper. After that, it’s not so much a question of “Will they or won’t they?” as it is “When, where, and how will they?” (Their age difference and Elio’s youth might not sit well with all viewers, but it bears noting that in Italy, the age of consent is 14.)

Critically, Guadagnino doesn’t rush towards this moment of sexual consummation. Oliver assumes a newfound standoffishness at first, much to Elio’s anguish, but he eventually leaves the boy a scribbled note proposing a rendezvous. Mirroring the frustrated urgency of Elio’s adolescent longings, the film then dilates time to almost comic effect. On the day of the scheduled tryst, Elio is obliged to feign interest in his usual preoccupations—including sex with Marzia—even as he is transparently twitching with anticipation over his forthcoming midnight meeting with Oliver. Guadagnino’s mise-en-scène in this passage is ingeniously droll, subtly drawing attention to Elio’s wristwatch (and the agonizingly slow countdown to 12 a.m.) in shot after shot. A brilliant touch, that, and one that perfectly captures the maddening fixations of teen horniness.

When the starlit hook-up finally occurs, it’s presented as an unabashedly joyous and liberating occasion for both Elio and Oliver, even if the film is uncharacteristically modest when it comes to the depiction of gay sex and male frontal nudity. (The contrast with Alain Guiraudie’s unfathomable queer dream-quest Staying Vertical from earlier this year couldn’t be sharper: That film presented a bizarre same-sex coupling that seemed designed to be off-putting to even the most broad-minded straight viewers.) Whether this narrow but disappointing strain of prudishness constitutes an outright neutering of Call Me by Your Name’s queerness is a question that is best left to queer critics.

In the wake of their first sexual encounter, Elio and Oliver grapple with the parameters of their relationship, in all its clumsy ardor and nourishing coziness. The film’s title derives from their decision, apropos of nothing, to reverse their given names when engaged in private conversation—the kind of dopey, affectionate private joke that gay couples rarely seem to be permitted on screen. They pass through the expected bouts of romantic elation, feverish arousal, dizzy disconnection, and the persistant gut-twisting anxiety that their relationship will be discovered. Fortunately, the latter ultimately proves to be a baseless concern: Elio and Oliver’s romance is not the Big Secret that they imagine it to be.

Chalamet and Hammer are both superb, evincing a curious but credible erotic chemistry. (One never truly buys the 31-year-old Hammer as a grad student of 24, but the marvelous screenplay and the actor’s command of the role’s more enigmatic nooks and crannies allow one to suspend disbelief.) Stahlburg is also characteristically exceptional, with a closing monologue that’s been justly praised for its depth and delicacy of feeling. To the extent that Call Me by Your Name is foremost about the evocation of a romantic mood, however, the actors are outshined by Guadagnino’s direction, as well as the peerless work of Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and production designer Samuel Deshors. Together, this trio conjures a ravishing vision of pastoral Italy that seems plucked from a 16th-century painting—the presence of the odd Walkman or K-car notwithstanding.

At times, the homoerotic aspects of the Roman art and artifacts that surround the characters are plainly highlighted, alongside Elio and Oliver’s awkward fascination with such objects. This resonates with a strain of boisterous Olympian masculinity that runs through the film, most prominently observable in the way that the lovers’ foreplay frequently begins with an ad hoc wrestling match. On other occasions, the setting's homoerotic Classical elements are permitted to recede gently into the background, where their effect is more subliminal. Guadagnino’s eye for tangible sexual details, meanwhile, is rarely subtle: The way he lingers on the semen slowly dripping and pooling from a mangled peach is indulgent, but also pure cinematic loveliness. (Yes, semen on a peach. It makes sense in context. Sort of.)

It’s undeniable that Guadagnino’s feature is atypical for a film about an adolescent struggling to resolve his sexual identity. Despite the Reagan-era setting, Call Me by Your Name replaces the familial shame, reactionary politics, and religious bigotry of countless gay narratives with subtler, psychological enemies: pessimism; confusion; negligence; self-loathing; fear of rejection; and the desolate awareness that good things never last. This makes for a relationship drama that can feel light on conflict at times. Ultimately, Elio is a privileged white kid with endlessly understanding parents, and Call Me by Your Name is the story of his magical summer love affair. Boys Don’t Cry or (1999) Pariah (2011) it’s not. Even at its most sorrowful, this is a profoundly warm film. Guadagnino handles the material with exceptional skill and a sensitive touch, but Call Me by Your Name doesn’t exhibit the sort of creative delight that—perversely enough—radiates from director’s nastier, virtuosic work such as I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015).

Not every drama is obliged to feature vicious arguments, repellent bigotry, and murderous jealousy, however. Call Me by Your Name is a first-rate example of a story primarily concerned with the evocative portrayal of a certain feeling. In this case, it’s the feeling of being young and messily, hopelessly in love with someone who returns that affection in spades. What lends Guadagnino’s film its aching edge is its mindfulness that such bliss cannot last. Long before the film’s epilogue, Elio is all too aware that Oliver will be returning to the U.S. at the end of the summer, and that the chances that they will ever see each other again are minimal. It’s a credit to Aciman’s novel and Ivory’s script that the boy’s misery over this reality is never allowed to devolve into some delusional fantasy where the lovers run away and leave the world behind. Far from diminishing the summer that Elio and Oliver share, the fleeting nature of their time together makes every moment even more precious. This might not be the most insightful romantic observation in history, but it’s rarely articulated with such loveliness and poignancy as it is in Call Me by Your Name.

Rating: B+