Call Me By Your Name
Languid romance withers under the Tuscan sun
Call Me By Your Name (2018)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg
There’s an ongoing argument that flares up almost every time someone disagrees with a critic. The argument goes something like this: Critics aren’t fans, and their opinions are diametrically opposed to those of real people. This is, of course, untrue. Critics aren’t grown in a laboratory somewhere. And they’ve pretty much got to be fans of the things they review—otherwise they’d have chosen a different line of work. Nonetheless, the stereotype of us “film critics” is that we love snooty foreign dramas while staring down our noses at popular entertainment. And to look at the overwhelming critical praise piling up behind Luca Guadagnino’s lush, louche and terribly languid coming-of-age drama Call Me By Your Name (currently sitting at 96 percent positive ratings at rottentomatoes.com), you’d think it was the next surefire skirmish in the ongoing culture wars.
Sorry to disappoint—but having weathered a year-end movie season in which Call Me By Your Name landed on a great many “best of” lists, I’ve got to respectfully disagree with, evidently, 96 percent of the my fellow critics. The film is beautiful and emotional and sensitively acted, but it’s about as exciting to watch as wallpaper. Very pretty wallpaper. But still.
The film is based on André Aciman’s much-praised 2007 novel. It’s adapted into screenplay form by high-tone British adaptation king James Ivory of Merchant/Ivory fame (The Remains of the Day, Howards End, A Room With a View). Rather than direct, Ivory turns the reins over to Italian cameraslinger Luca Guadagnino (whose 2009 film I Am Love made a big splash in art house circles). It’s a classy affair all around. No doubt about it.
Set in Northern Italy in 1983, the story swirls around 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, most recently glimpsed in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird). He’s a sullen, tightlipped Jewish-American kid living with his parents at a spacious antique villa in the Tuscan countryside. Dad is a professor of archeology who has landed himself an impossibly awesome summer gig, lazing around a pool, drinking wine, hosting dinner parties and occasionally ogling the stunningly sculpted abs of ancient Roman statues that the locals dredge up at a nearby beach. The professor’s family has got it even easier. Elio basically spends his days soaking up the sun and his nights hanging out with lots of sexually advanced European gals. Tough gig.
Into this unlikely, sun-drenched paradise comes the Adonis-like Oliver (Armie Hammer from The Lone Ranger), a twentysomething graduate student who shows up to assist Elio’s dad with his virtually nonexistent and totally non-pressing academic paperwork. Now we’ve got another pretty person to loll around the pool in his swim trunks. It’s not long before carefree Oliver attracts the attentions of introspective young Elio. Nonetheless, it takes a full hour of the film’s slow-going screentime before Elio summons up the courage and self-knowledge to admit that he might be attracted to Oliver. Is Elio gay? Hard to say. He’s got a girlfriend. He sleeps with her. And openly brags about his sexual relationship. But he acts petulant and jealous every time Oliver drapes himself around one of the many willing local ladies. What about Oliver? Is he gay? Maybe. Or not. He comes across so easygoing that actually choosing a sexual preference would only harsh his mellow. (You can tell how aloof he is because he always says “later” instead of “goodbye.”)
And so Elio and Oliver spend their summer flirting but not flirting: swimming together, going for long walks through the picturesque Tuscan countryside, having epistemological debates, eating ripe fruit picked from trees. Guadagnino prefers to keep everything highly visual and symbolic. He assumes that frequent shots of fresh apricots, ripe and pendulant on the branch, are enough for viewers to grasp his film’s not-so-subtle subtext of longing sexual desire. And so we spend a lot of time gazing at tight young skin, glistening under the Italian sun. We watch endless leaves waving in the warm summer sun. We find ourselves hypnotized by tiny, glinting stars in the pool as our protagonists glare under their hooded eyelids at one another. And so on.
It’s not so much the creaky visual symbolism that Guadagnino employs, nor his heatstroke-slow pace. Aciman’s Proustian novel withers a bit under the director’s single-minded stewardship. Coming-of-age stories are nothing new, particularly to indie film. Coming-
We’ve all seen tales of teenage love before. And those of us who have passed that age threshold are wise enough to know that those mad, obsessive love affairs we saw ourselves having at 16 were a passing fancy at best. Whatever fleeting glimpses of self-awareness we were granted as a teenager were just the tip of the iceberg. As a result, it’s hard to look at Elio and Oliver’s uncertain longing for one another, their “will they just get it on already?” relationship, as some sort of heartbreaking, lifelong romantic tragedy. Chalamet and Hammer are quite good together, and they share a believable chemistry on screen. But stripped of its postcard beauty and its academic pretensions, Call Me By Your Name is little more than a soapy, overlong melodrama. Sure, there are plenty of audiences who have (and will) swoon over 132 minutes’ worth of shirtless pretty boys arguing over the merits of Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni. But there are plenty more people who have no freaking idea who Ferruccio Busoni is and would rather just watch The Last Jedi again. … Like me. Freaking critics!