FEBRUARY 21, 2018
I know that I’m a bad gay for waiting so long to review Best Picture nominee “Call Me By Your Name” (it’s been in theaters for the past 13 weeks), but I finally got around to the film this week, and it was so moving that I found myself going back to it for a second time a few days later.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by 89 year-old film legend James Ivory, “Call Me By Your Name” is destined to go down in film history as one of the great gay love stories. It’s a terrific film, not perfect, but what it does right, it does so right, that attention and respect must be paid.
Set “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983, the film is set in the villa of Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg, who also shines in Best Picture nominees “The Post” and “The Shape of Water”). Perlman is an archaeology professor who, along with his wife Annella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (Best Actor Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet), welcome a new intern into their home every summer.
This year, it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24 year-old graduate student whose self-confidence is initially a bit off-putting to Elio. Though publicly questioning whether Oliver comes off as too arrogant, the 17 year-old Elio finds himself becoming attracted to the newcomer, despite his own relationship with girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).
Oliver and Elio eat, swim, ride bikes through the Italian countryside and climb mist-covered hillsides together. It’s so idyllic, it’s almost ridiculous, but “Call Me By Your Name” presents itself simply as a romantic fantasy in the best sense of the term. What’s wonderful about the film is there is no forced melodrama here — no gay-bashing or dying from a fatal disease — that Hollywood would undoubtedly include if they were to ever remake this.
Instead, we see the growth of two individuals — a supremely self-confident graduate student who has his walls broken down by the love of another, and a teenager who has his world shaken by the confusing feeling of unexpected love. There’s little traditional drama in “Call Me By Your Name,” but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t conflict. However, the conflict is usually not between the two main characters but instead within themselves, coming to grips with the feelings that are happening inside them.
Guadagnino’s direction displays an uncharacteristically delicate touch here. His films, including 2009’s “I Am Love” with Tilda Swinton and 2015’s “A Bigger Splash” with Ralph Fiennes, were drenched in sex and nudity, but Guadagnino wisely decides to pull back here. The nudity is brief and the sex is (mostly) implied, but the film is no less erotic for that. And he never pushes the big moments. Case in point: at the climactic moment in which Elio confesses his romantic feelings to Oliver, Guadagnino doesn’t do it in a whispering close-up. He stages it in the town square around a circular war memorial. As Elio begins to express his longings, the characters walk in opposite directions around the memorial, so that when the climactic confession comes, the characters are the farthest away from each other, only to come together when they complete their circular walk. Subtle and powerful.
Ivory’s script is no less accomplished. Surprisingly, Ivory has never won an Academy Award, but that should all change on March 4 — this script is too good not to win the Adapted Screenplay Oscar. In a situation like this, it would have been too easy for a script to make societal points about gay love, but Ivory’s screenplay shows you events but doesn’t tell you how to feel, much the same way as his productions (particularly “A Room With a View” and “Howards End” did).
Hammer, who was so good as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” has been underestimated for years probably because of his good looks, much the same problem that many beautiful actresses share. Here Hammer uses his good looks, however, as part of his character. Oliver is used to doors being opened for him because he’s handsome, possibly explaining his perceived arrogance. But that sense of privilege crumbles when he meets Elio who wants what the heart wants. Hammer’s Oliver is his best film performance to date.
Stuhlbarg, who is having quite a year, was good as Abe Rosenthal in “The Post,” very good as a Soviet mole in “The Shape of Water,” and he’s superb here as Elio’s father. For most of the film, Stuhlbarg recedes from the action until he delivers a devastating father/son monologue near the end of the film that’s just terrific.
But it’s young Chalamet’s film from start to finish. While each of the three main characters have a dramatic arc, his is the most profound. Elio is a character who is dedicated to his reading and his music transcription until love walked into his life and gobsmacked him. The confusion of an unexpected first love is perfectly captured in every moment of Chalamet’s performance. If his performance didn’t work, the film wouldn’t work, because we as an audience had to be invested in Elio’s struggle.
Thanks in large part to Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name” works. And then some.