It’s hard to avoid comparisons between Call Me By Your Name and Brokeback Mountain, even though the stories couldn’t be farther apart. Let me just say that, for this viewer, at least, the impact was equivalent. I remember after seeing Brokeback Mountain, I just walked around for about an hour, not thinking, really, just sort of digesting what I had seen – or trying to. Call Me By Your Name had a similar effect — it’s like a time bomb that goes off as you’re leaving the theater. Interestingly enough, it’s the final scene in both films that has the major impact. I just remember riding home on the bus, the errands I was going to run after the movie completely forgotten, thinking “Holy shit.” I don’t even really remember the bus ride.
First, the basics: Based on the novel by André Aciman, the film takes place in the summer of 1983, “somewhere in northern Italy.” Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is seventeen, already quite accomplished — one might even say precocious: he plays classical music, and even throws in his own variations based on the styles of various composers. He reads voraciously, swims in the river, and enjoys a close relationship with his parents. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture; his mother (Amera Casar) is conversant in several languages. Enter Oliver (Armie Hammer), tall, handsome, a bit stand-offish, a litle too casual, a twenty-four year old graduate student and his father’s summer intern. Elio is fascinated, partly because Oliver is Jewish, as are the Perlmans, and partly because Oliver is something of an enigma.
Events, as they say, take their course.
It’s a beautifully, subtly constructed film. The magic is in the details on this one (well, give or take the truly stellar performances), and director Luca Guadagnino has put it together in the only way it could work. It’s a poem: so much happens in between and around the words and the action that there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a film that just has to soak into you — it’s not tight, and it’s not fast-paced: it builds tension layer by layer, slowly, subtly, until it achieves a kind of resonance that doesn’t really hit home until the final scene, which runs into the closing titles, and is nothing more than Elio’s face as he’s staring into the fire. Wham. (Chalamet should win an Oscar for that scene alone.)
The performances by both Hammer and Chalamet — the entire cast, to be honest — are amazing: complex, subtle, as poetic as the film itself even though solidly grounded in reality, and right on target.
It’s Chalamet’s film. Elio, the seventeen-year-old who falls in love with Oliver, is the focus, and Chalamet delivers. He’s alternately self-assured, awkward, angry, desperate, and very much in love in the way only a teenager can be, and yet there’s a certain sense of self-preservation: when he does try to voice his feelings to Oliver, it is circumspect, elliptical — it’s all in the subtext, the words left unsaid.
Oliver’s reaction is telling, a man suddenly finding himself walking through a minefield. “We can’t talk about those things.” And yet, this is part and parcel of who Oliver is: We start to wonder what scars he’s bearing, and there is a real sense that Oliver is terrified of what’s happening. Hammer wears the role of Oliver so naturally that one forgets he’s an actor playing a part. He’s a bit of a bastard, but we start to realize that is, along with his casual attitude, self defense more than anything: it’s not until after their relationship is consummated that he is able to make his own confession, and we realize that Oliver was as fascinated by Elio as Elio was by Oliver.
All this is set in the landscape of northern Italy in the summer, sun-drenched days filled with cycling down long, deserted roads, a garden by moonlight, a night swim in the river, each scene beautifully composed. One is tempted to say “lush,” but it’s not: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography presents us with a fairly severe setting: those long deserted roads are narrow, as often as not bound by hedges, leaving no way out; the town is almost desolate, at least early on; the images are often of loneliness, so that the richness, the sense of life, comes back to Oliver and Elio. Guadagnino also throws in a couple of little tricks, like bridging two scenes with overlapping sound, so that we arrive in the next scene almost breathless. It’s not only a poem in the obvious ways — that poetry suffuses the entire film.
Call Me By Your Name has gotten a lot of buzz, deservedly so (88 award nominations so far, 31 wins), but there are a couple of issues that are really outside the film itself that need to be addressed.
A number of commentators have called it a “gay coming of age story.” Yes and no: it is, in a way, a coming of age story, although that aspect of it is not really front and center until the final scene. And in a very real sense, it’s not a “gay” story: it’s simply a story of first love, and a love that comes with a lot of caveats. Like Brokeback Mountain, it’s important to remember the time in which this film is set: It’s not now, it’s thirty-five years ago, and there are constraints on the relationship between Elio and Oliver that we might have forgotten. Add to the mix one line, nearly a throw-away, that makes it certain the Oliver’s family is not nearly so accepting as Elio’s. There’s also the fact, on Oliver’s part, that he’s getting involved with his boss’ seventeen year old son, itself enough to give him pause. It’s a certainty that Elio doesn’t identify as gay, although for Oliver, that’s an open question: as I noted above, we wonder what his past history has been, and with whom. It’s not that anyone makes a point of any of this — it’s really part of the furniture, so to speak. (Although the film does introduce a gay couple — a caricature, really — as a means, I think, of drawing a distinction between “gay” as an identity and who Elio and Oliver are).
Some commentators have made an issue of the age difference, which I think reveals more about the critics’ politics than anything to do with the film. I suppose, with all the attention given lately to sexual predators in high places, it’s only natural, in some quarters, at least, that age would be an issue. There are a couple of important considerations here that these critics seem to be missing. First, between late teens and early thirties is a group, known generally as “twenty-somethings,” for whom age differences, even those on the order of that between Oliver and Elio, are simply not all that relevant. And even more important, not only is the relationship between Elio and Oliver consensual, but it’s Elio who is pursuing the older man, while Oliver is holding back: there’s nothing predatory about Oliver’s behavior in the least.
A further note, on the title: At one point, Oliver says to Elio “Call me by your name and I will call you by mine.” (Which sounds like it should be a quote from another source, but if it is, I couldn’t find it.) It becomes a sort of game they play, a display of ownership, a melding of identities. Ultimately, it becomes a talisman, a mantra, an anchor.
Is it perfect? Well, I can always find something that I would do differently, but in this case, those somethings are really trivial. It stands on its own quite ably, thank you.
You can find the trailer, along with full credits, at IMDb.
(Frenesy Film Company, La Cinéfacture, RT Features, Water’s End Productions, M.Y.R.A. Entertainment/Sony Pictures Classics (U.S. Distributor), 2017)