by Jamie Brown
Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) is at the helm of this incredibly well-received coming-of-age love story set, once again, in the Italian sunshine, but a filmmaker of greater stature is lurking in the background. Call Me by Your Name has been delivered by the esteemed Merchant Ivory Productions, and James Ivory, who directed most of their greatest hits and is now in his late eighties, pens this adaptation of André Aciman’s popular 2007 novel.
Call Me by Your Name; Dir.: Luca Guadagnino; Italy/France 2017, 132 minutes; Our Rating: ★★★/5
Merchant Ivory are best known for lavish E.M. Forster adaptations such as A Room with a View or Howards End, and similar prestige period dramas usually featuring a megacast of top British thesps. Much of the writing here recalls those well-mannered empire-era or wartime stories where feelings are repressed, sex is not spoken of and desire is a dangerous taboo.
The protagonist of this film is the son of a professor of classical antiquities, and the opening credits alert us to the characters’ world of highbrow art and academia. Greco-Roman statues and artefacts feature heavily and inspire the way the two largely-unclothed lead characters are often framed. Teenage intellectual prodigy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is your Venus, but he’s not your fire. Comfortable enough with his talent, since he has apparently been spared the burden of expectation by his parents, he’s nevertheless an awkward introvert who doesn’t run with what there is of a crowd. Despite being impossibly good looking himself, when the village’s gorgeous hormonal youngsters frolic, Elio muses on the sidelines.
Elio’s father annually hosts a young graduate for the summer – a sort-of fantasy internship – and this year it’s the turn of confident American Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver is more of a David, with his exquisite masculine physique, heroic features, and deep voice. The arrangement means Elio gets turfed out of his bedroom, so he initially resents the guest, and Oliver is cold in return, but Elio soon becomes strangely fascinated by him. Despite sharing very little time together or conversation, there’s something afoot and both know it. For our Venus, it’s all like some new kind of drug. These are feelings he doesn’t understand, can’t articulate, may or may not be enjoying, but can’t ignore. Spoiler alert (not): they have a fling.
As you might expect, this doesn’t all go straightforwardly, but if you’re awaiting the old clichés of secrecy, shame and hostile bigotry on being discovered, you need to look elsewhere. This gay relationship develops as we wish they all could, apparently free from the threat of small-minded outsiders. There’s a lot of tension, but it’s entirely natural, and personal. There are a few casualties, mostly notably the women. In between his first kiss with Oliver and the two actually getting down to it, Elio has sex with French babe Marzia, who has the hots for him, then ignores her. Oliver is pursued on and off by a female local who I don’t believe even gets a name.
Did Elio lose his virginity with Marzia? He doesn’t seem exactly turned off by her – is he then bisexual? These are not important questions in Call Me by Your Name, and they aren’t answered. The film is concerned with nuances of emotion, behaviour, and the things we do for love. It’s about finding the deepest meaning in the slightest glances, and of the many languages used in the film, the most important is body language. Most critics appear to have found this approach utterly mind blowing. For me, it worked for about half of the overlong runtime, if I’m being generous.
The period here is the 1980s, though there’s not an awful lot in the film to place it there. The setting, identified only as “somewhere in Northern Italy” (it was filmed in Lombardy) is a sleepy rural village that has probably looked the same for years; nobody has period-specific clothes or hair. There are the musical choices, but scenes of people dancing to the Psychedelic Furs or Giorgio Moroder don’t necessarily date the film since cult eighties pop turns up everywhere.
Timelessness is a great quality, but this movie doesn’t have that. It has different eras, and their different values, colliding with each other uncomfortably. Call Me by Your Name wants to simultaneously exist in the conservative past of Ivory’s best-loved films, where Elio and Oliver’s relationship would be a love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, and in a liberal utopia where there is zero risk to it being open. This confusion is summed up by the soundtrack, which goes from classical – easily the best fit with the setting, characters and writing – to those period chart hits, to the millennial indie of Sufjan Stevens. The selections jar as they battle for supremacy over the film’s mood.
I also found it hard to engage with the much-celebrated performance of Chalamet, though few of the reasons are his fault. Too much about Elio and his lifestyle are unrelatable. Everything about him and his world is way above average; he’s a young man with elite looks, elite intellect, with elite parents, who lives in paradise. His locality is full of unrecognisable people who do nothing but swim naked in secret lagoons, consume fine art and eat outside. The beauty and pain of first love should be universal, but everything else about Elio is not, which makes it harder to go with him. Chalamet is asked to convey everything with expression and very little dialogue, which he does admirably, but it feels a bit like watching ‘live from RADA’, something that was crystallised for me by the ending, which is drama school 101.
Hammer performs way above everyone else, and it is only when he is on the screen that the film comes to life. His work in a crucial scene where Oliver and Elio do some awkward non-flirting around a statue in a town square is the best in the film, and he superbly handles the novel’s much talked-about ‘peach scene’, mercifully adding humour to something that couldn’t possibly be played seriously (am I the only philistine who thought of American Pie at this point?). The only thing about Hammer I find distracting is his uncanny similarity to Jon Hamm, especially in his voice. Whenever Oliver strolled around the town, I couldn’t help but think of Don Draper on one of his summer jaunts in Mad Men.
The film has a very odd attitude to intimacy, which again sees conservative and liberal tastes colliding. Guadagnino strangely puts distance between the audience and the two main characters at points where they are growing closer emotionally. When the big event happens, we are taken to the brink of full-on body heat before an abrupt cutaway to a tree. The most explicit the film gets is when Elio and Marzia have sex, which seemed odd to me. The age gap between the two male leads also felt a lot larger than the seven years it is meant to be in the novel. There are ten years between the actors, but Hammer’s size and baritone adds to his age, whereas Chalamet, a boyishly skinny Manhattan model-type, looks like the seventeen-year-old he’s playing, but isn’t. The result was that I didn’t feel the chemistry, to the extent that when Oliver boards a stunning vintage compartment locomotive at a very important moment for the two of them, all I could think was ‘phwoar, look at that train!’
My chief issue with the film however, is the screenplay, which I would describe as barely-adapted. This comes from gut feeling as opposed to knowledge of the source material; I often felt I was probably watching dialogue-free scenes that had been richly brought to life by words on the page, but didn’t have the same impact as a visual. Guadagnino chooses to curtail a lot of scenes with a fade-out, which I kept interpreting as a new page turning, or a new chapter beginning, in the book. It’s an irritating editorial choice on the screen.
The film builds towards a massive moment that involves a monologue from Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). It is brilliantly delivered, and if your emotional investment in Elio is as the film intends, then it will likely knock your socks off as it has nearly everyone else. Sadly, I had lost contact with the film some time before and was no longer in a place to be moved, but it is unquestionably a refreshing and beautifully handled scene and doubtless of incredible importance to anyone who has been in Elio’s position.
Many have called this the film of the year. I don’t even think it’s the best male same-sex relationship drama of the year. For that, I refer you to the Brokeback Dales of Francis Lee’s wonderful God’s Own Country. If only Elio and Oliver had been forced to sort out their feelings amongst a stack of Pot Noodles and some English weather… I might have believed them.