TIFF FILM REVIEW: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME Aspires to Be a Post-Modern Love Story About Young Love
Few directors have their finger more on the extravagantly romantic, let alone on the ability of the Italian countryside to place it into relief, than Italian Luca Guadagnino. It was only natural, almost mandatory, that he would be the one to direct the adaptation of the coming-of-age story Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. His film, which has played the festival circuit this year and will be released in theaters later this season, is a beautifully rendered, aesthetically pleasing, and emotionally satisfying interpretation of the relationship between two young men one summer in the 1980s. It fashions itself, mostly though not always effectively, as a post-modern film in which the characters’ sexuality does not matter unless it needs to, permitting itself to maximize the emotional payoff to its limits.
It’s 1982 and young Elio is living in Northern Italy with his bourgeois, ultra-modern parents, an Italian mother and an American academic. The family dines in Italian, reads from German, chatters in English, and philosophizes in French. It is without question over the top and even obnoxious, but this is a Guadagnino film and this is Italy. Everything is meant to be excessive and somewhat ridiculous. It is only a wonder that Tilda Swinton does not show up dead face-down in the pool.
The young man is played with stunning effectiveness by the surging young actor Timothee Chalamet, who we have enjoyed recently in other small fare like Lady Bird. He is discovering his fluid sexuality, aroused for most of the time he is awake, while exploring the contours of attraction with different individuals of different genders. Elio is impish, coquettish, and sometimes somnambular in his gait. He watches the hot Italian days go by with burning desire and crushing disinterest. He is “too smart” for his own good, able to hold court in several languages and quote multiple philosophers. None of that matters to his girding loins, in any case.
Enter the early 20-something year old Oliver, an American research assistant to Elio’s father who is in town for the summer. Oliver is played by the unquestionably dashing Armie Hammer who, though sporting more film credits to his name, somehow seems less polished as an actor than the young Chalamet, insisting that every emotion be overexpressed rather than let his own attractiveness do the talking.
In any event, the two men develop a close friendship and then a romance, one that affects both of them profoundly. In one sense, it is a classic, A to Z love story, a coming of age tale, a passionate summer affair, that we have seen many times before. It would not be fair, in other words, to describe this as a Brokeback Mountain meets Under the Tuscan Sun. The fact of Elio’s and Oliver’s sexuality and gender purposefully plays little into the story except in obvious places, what with the ultra-supportive parents and the always welcoming Italians.
Call Me By Your Name, however, does stumble at least once in its insistence in being treated as a post-modern romance in which it is the fact of and not the nature of the leads’ sexuality that matters. For all its neo-liberalist approach to the subject, the camera still pans away to the open window during a certain part of intimacy from which it did not shy when it was Elio with Marzia, and not Elio with Oliver. I am not complaining about the dual-standard by which Hollywood persists to treat gay and straight relationships—though one may, of course—I am simply pointing out that the film does not take the courage of its convictions all the way. Its insistence that it exists in a post sexuality standard means that it should be judged by it as well.
Elsewhere, the film beautifully pulls you into the indulgent, outlandish setting that it conveys. The budget for Mr. Hammer’s and Mr. Chalamet’s wardrobe was clearly slashed to exclude any sort of upper body wear, as the heat-stroke ridden Elio and Oliver waste no opportunity to disrobe and/or jump into a stream, pool, or puddle.
During one of the few moments in which Olivier and Elio’s father actually work, daddy declares of an Italian sculpture that it is nonchalant, ageless, with an ambiguity daring you to desire it. Mr. Guadagnino wishes, perhaps, that this moniker applied to his film, but the truth is that Call Me By Your Name is many things—erotic, intriguing, heart-breaking—but subtle or ambiguous is decidedly not one of them.
And while Call Me By Your Name is overall brining with innuendo, teeming with sometimes silly punches to the arm and rolls around the hay, its most tender moments are effective enough to force you to forgive the excess. During a pivotal scene, Elio’s father, played by another surging actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, delivers a powerful, punch-to-the-stomach speech for the ages. The entire message, certainly the director’s, is one of longing for youth, of love for youth. It is a warning message, as well, to embittered adults who have torn parts of themselves in order to survive heartbreak. It is a reminder that perhaps we have killed too much in order to live too little.
Of course it is self-justification—a self-indulgent film telling its viewers to self-indulge in order to exist, and set in the capital country for self-indulgence, no less. But it is a testament to the powerful way in which the words are delivered by Stuhlbarg, and really to the preciseness with which the message has been set up by the prior 120 minutes, that the entire morale works profoundly despite the self-reflective nature of the ideas.
Call Me By Your Name thus, incredibly, sneaks up on you. Hitting you over the head with its wink-wink post-modernism, and extravagant at every turn, it invites you to nearly dismiss it as teeny-soap, as emotional fluff without profound significance. But the film is clearly more than that and prostrates itself bare at your feet with passion. It is incredible and refreshing that it takes the anti-cynicism of a starry-eyed youth and his sincere emotional investment into love to make you understand that beautiful message.