Before the Oscars make their mark this weekend I have one more review of a contender to post, the last Best Picture nominee I have yet to have my say on called “Call Me by Your Name”. Some have seen this film as somewhat of a token movie, one that tackles a major social subject that doesn’t quite belong with the other films for Best Picture. I’m here to tell you it belongs. Yes it does touch on a seemingly popular crutch for statement films these days focusing on a gay relationship, but it’s a quality, tasteful love story like few I, personally, have ever seen before. This is my review of “Call Me by Your Name”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Call Me by Your Name” is based on the André Aciman novel of the same name. The story revolves around introspective musician Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) who experiences a sexual awakening during a summer in Italy with his family. When his archaeologist father invites his American assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) to join the family for a several month stay Elio and Oliver strike up a rivalry, but as the two bond over music and other interests they engage in a seductive courtship where Elio reveals his shy attraction for Oliver and Oliver warns against acting on those emotions. Despite forming traditional relationships with separate women, the two men are unable to ignore their attractions towards each other leading to a deep love affair and a heartbreaking conclusion.
This film is about two people, two major characters brought to life by an experienced veteran and a newcomer making a name for himself in quality emotionally driven projects. Army Hammer and Timothée Chalamet are both incredible in this film and it’s a good thing because the movie focuses squarely on them and this whirlwind romance their characters face, one for the first time and the other acting as a credible and devoted guide through the emotional whirlwind.
First, we have Timothée Chalamet, a young actor who has appeared in several high-profile films over the last year including “Lady Bird” and “Hostiles” and appeared in “Interstellar” in 2014. Chalamet is quickly becoming a highly respected name in Hollywood and for good reason. This role may the magnum opus of the first stage of his career as he takes on the part of Elio Perlman, a young bibliophile and musician who isn’t quite sure where he fits in yet. He resents his summers in beautiful Italy and always has a sense of teenage angst that gives him color and makes him much more of a rebel than I think he ever truly wants to be. Chalamet tackles the role with grace, perfectly encapsulating the emotion of a first romance and the growth that takes place within a young man as he begins to explore who he really is inside. The shame, the insecurity, the rebellious tendencies, they’re all there and its incredible believable and surprisingly subtle. Chalamet deserves every bit of credit he has received for this role, tackling not only a young man experiencing sexual awakening, but also a young boy becoming a man and struggling with identity regardless of his sexual orientation.
On the other end of this relationship we have Armie Hammer as Oliver, a 24-year-old assistant to Elio’s father who is Elio’s intellectual equal but takes the world a little less seriously. Hammer has had some hits and misses in his career but few would argue his talent as an actor in a role that counts. This is one of those roles. Hammer is the more mature and wiser man of the duo, despite his still young age, and seems to be much more concerned with the public image his relationship with Elio will bring. Considering the film’s setting in the 1980s Oliver’s concerns are valid and despite his maturity Hammer brings Oliver’s puppy love to full realization as this smart and self-confident man finds himself attracted to a much younger individual and feels both a longing to celebrate that emotion and a cautious optimism that it will work out. Hammer does a great job bringing Oliver to life, showing complexity in his character who, despite being the more experienced individual in the relationship, still seems to be as insecure as Elio but is just better at overcoming it and hiding it. There are layers to his emotions and it never feels like Oliver is ashamed of the chemistry between himself and Elio, but there is an awareness of how taboo the romance is. This makes Oliver a complicated person who fights his own emotions but also serves as an appropriate guide for Elio into his first love and a teacher of emotional strength and tenderness as the story progresses. Despite his own self-aware cautious nature Oliver also inspires fearlessness in the face of judgement. It’s a deep and sincere performance for Hammer who, in the past, has played more vocal and aggressive characters in his mainstream films.
“Call Me by Your Name” may be one of the sincerest and most stripped down love stories I’ve ever seen put to film. Director Luca Guadagnino approaches this tale with presentation and subtlety in mind and what we get is a surprisingly real romantic drama that starts, builds, and finishes in smooth and memorable fashion. The whole story surrounds two people at different stages of their lives in a time where their romance would be frowned upon more than its celebrated who are unafraid to explore the emotions they have developed for each other against all odds. We’ve seen this kind of story before but for the first time in my personal viewing history this is a love story that cares about presentation and perception. It longs for us to see ourselves in either Oliver’s or Elio’s shoes regardless of whether our own love story is one that is more traditional or a same-sex relationship. Instead of leaning on the homosexual undertones to drive home just another gay propaganda film (and yes there are plenty of those lets be real) the story, fort he most part, is tasteful and feels more like a real-life romance than a drama plucked out of a fairytale making it both engaging and relatable.
“Call Me by Your Name” does contain a deeper underlying message about going for it all when love hits you but it’s the small details that tie into this message that really help the film pay off in all the right ways. Over the course of this summer romance we see both men try to make romance work with women despite their attraction to each other. Hell, Elio even gets to second base with a girl and seems totally into it, but he loses interest as soon as his fantasy with Oliver looks to be a possible reality. There are numerous exchanges between both Oliver and Elio with Elio’s parents that keep us guessing the whole movie whether they know or don’t know about the affair and what they really think about the romance. Eventually this all comes around to a satisfying and inspiring one-on-one but up until that point it adds some interesting subtext to the romance and Elio’s approach to that love that builds on the movie’s message. Despite Oliver being confident in his choices and who he is and how he would embrace the relationship, Elio is not. He’s a young man experiencing true love and lust for the first time and seeing all these tiny little factors play into an extremely important part of his life is amazing as everything is handled with care and an appreciation for subtlety romance films tend to throw right out the window. This all comes together to make “Call Me by Your Name” an incredible coming of age tale that goes well beyond its social significance to make it something worth viewing for its art as well as its message.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
I loved a lot about this movie, from the acting to the setting, script, pacing, you name it. What I didn’t like was the seemingly forced artistic shooting choices that kind of annoyed me a bit. Many times in this film we get establishing shots and extended shots mostly of scenery and landscapes in Italy. A lot of times a film will do this to dwell on a moment or to prolong the inevitable. Here these moments don’t feel significant at all. In fact, those extra few seconds feel like an eternity to the point where I even said to myself that it felt like at times “Call Me by Your Name” was a glorified advertisement for Italian tourism. At two hours and eleven minutes this movie didn’t need these extended shots. In fact, the film actually has moments of smash cuts that work great, so this makes the extended shots feel even more out of place. It was an odd artistic choice that I felt was done just to be done rather than to add anything to the story or the moment. It’s a small gripe, but one worth mentioning because it quickly gets annoying.
My only other real issue with this film is that sometimes it does borderline on pretentious with its portrayal of a seemingly perfect summer fling relationship and its willingness to, at times, be pretty blunt and graphic. The story and acting rescue the film from going just too far over the top at times, but still there ARE a few moments in the movie that were a bit off for me. As I said in the “What Worked” section, this movie is mostly very tasteful and very rarely goes to the point of leaning heavily on its gay theme for the sake of shock value, but those very few times where it does beat you over the head with undertones feels a bit preachy with an aura of self-importance. This is to be expected from any film tackling this subject matter. However, “Brokeback Mountain” had the same undertones and handled them just fine and so too does “Call Me by Your Name”. It’s about balance and both movies accomplished that. They combine drama with real world complications to bring to life an on-screen romance we can route for normalizing homosexuality in their narratives rather than glorifying it as this unique wonderful experience. That is where “Call Me by Your Name’ proves to be pretentious, in the pride it clearly possesses in showing a more normal and natural gay love, but considering how well this love was developed and the quality of the story I can give it a much deserved pass for that.
“Call Me by Your Name” is bound to be uncomfortable for some, but WHY it is uncomfortable may define how much you’re going to enjoy it. If you harbor a distaste for homosexuality, then why are your reading this review? Nothing I say could make you love this movie so move along. However, if you choose to watch it then it just might make you feel uncomfortable because you can relate to it. Take away the homosexual story element if you wish and at its core you have a tale about a young man experiencing a sexual awakening in his life beside an individual older, wiser, but just a delicate as himself. It is, to put it bluntly, a perfect love story regardless of who is involved and while it clearly knows the significance of its message this film rises above its own self-importance to become a subtle, controlled and well performed romantic drama that challenges convention and speaks to the fear we all have to chase those emotions within our hearts. “Call Me by Your Name” is a gem that had me glued to the screen to see how it would all pan out, not because I wanted the tears or heartache that were destined to come with this tale but because I wanted to see two humans conquer the world and be truly happy even for a few moments by each other’s sides. It’s something that few people fail to capture in reality, and it’s even harder to capture on the big screen. But, “Call Me by Your Name” does it to perfection and in turn is spectacularly human.