Review - 'Call Me by Your Name'
Tackling a story like Call Me by Your Name's is a herculean task, and one that should not be attempted by a lesser director. Now, I haven't read the book it is based upon by Andre Aciman, but I've been told its a pretty hard one to adapt. After having seen the film, I can say that Luca Guadagnino makes a valiant effort and that his heart is in the right place, but there are some fundamental flaws with the film that probably were more suited to remain on the page.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Elio, a teen fresh out of high school who is grappling with his sexuality. When Oliver, an understudy to Elio's father, comes to stay, there is an almost immediate connection and attraction between the two. Through the dwindling weeks of the summer, the two must come to terms with the joys and pains of their relationship.
Call Me by Your Name is a film that is so committed to putting you in its character's shoes and immersing the viewer in its setting that it nearly loses sight of telling an actual story. Director Luca Guadagnino is more interested in having his audience experience a moment in time rather than creating a traditionally structured story with a plot that moves from point A to B. For me, this ended up being a bit of a double-edged sword. In one way, I love that this film transports you so seamlessly into Italy and gives you very down-to-earth characters that feel real. Conversely, it also ends up feeling a bit like a leisurely vacation without much of a direction, and without many dramatic hooks, there were long stretches of this lengthy two-hour-and-twelve-minute film that had me yawning waiting for something significant to happen.
Despite being extremely lackadaisical in its first two-thirds, Call Me by Your Name really picks things up towards the end. I think the final act of this film is poignant and heartfelt in ways that justify the meandering plot-line that leads up to it. If the rest of the film had as much to say as its final fifteen minutes, this might have been one of my favorite films of the year.
Another issue I had with the film was with its set-up. Oliver is visiting Italy to be Mr Perlman's (Elio's father) understudy, so you would think that you would see him working with Mr. Perlman quite a bit. Nope. For most of the duration, characters (Oliver included) just lounge around reading books, swimming and doing whatever else you do in Italy when school is out for the season. Sure, there's one or two scenes where Oliver is sort of researching things in his field, but not enough to convince me that this was anything other than a summer get-away rife with flings, hangouts and dance parties. Oliver's time in Italy ends up turning into a vacation where nobody really does any work at all and his understudy "job" simply serves as a thinly veiled excuse for him to be there so that the romance can take center stage.
Regarding the romance itself; while I loved most of the aspects of the relationship between Elio and Oliver, I couldn't fully get behind some of the more sexual scenes. The sexual encounters themselves are well-executed, but the lead-ups to them typically focus on Elio committing acts of self-pleasure that for me stooped to Fifty Shades of Grey and American Pie levels. Yes, it's more artfully shot here, but it still felt gimmicky, unnecessary, and ultimately uncomfortable to watch. I felt like the smaller moments of affection between these characters held much more weight than any of the actual sex scenes.
A film like Call Me by Your Name demands phenomenal performances, and it more than delivers. The two leads, Armie Hammer and Timothy Chalamet play Oliver and Elio respectively, and their chemistry is spot-on. There is a funny dynamic between these two characters/actors that I observed, though. Maybe it's just me, but I found Timothy Chalamet's performance to be stronger, but his character less likable and relate-able. Conversely, while Armie Hammer turns in arguably his best performance yet, it's still not as good as Chalamet's, but I found his character, Oliver, to be more likable. Another stand-out performance comes from Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio's father. Stuhlbarg gives one of the most emotionally heart-felt and gut-wrenching monologues I've ever heard, and it was easily the best moment of the entire film.
What Call Me by Your Name undeniably knocks out of the park is its cinematography and music. This is a beautiful film that really evokes its setting in a meaningful way. I wanted to be there in Italy while I was watching this film. The score and licensed music by Sufjan Stevens also perfectly captures that joyous yet undeniably melancholy feeling of young love in the waning stretch of summer that I would say almost all of us can identify with.
Call Me by Your Name is a flawed film that is saved by its wholesome message and by its total commitment to its characters and setting. While there were certainly times where I felt this film's length was working against it, I was ultimately satisfied with where it wrapped up.