A film review by Craig J. Koban February 5, 2018


2017, R, 130 mins.


Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman  /  Armie Hammer as Oliver  /  Michael Stuhlbarg as Lyle Perlman  /  Amira Casar as Annella Perlman  /  Esther Garrel as Marzia  /  Victoire Du Bois as Chiara

Directed by Luca Guadagnino  /  Written by James Ivory, based on the book by Andre Aciman

It would be deceptively easy to label Luca Guadagnino's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME - adapted from the novel of the same name by Andre Aciman - as a gay love story. 

Yes, the early 1980's set period drama does indeed contain a central romance between two young men, but the pair never once refer to themselves as homosexual.  They're simply two people caught in a tight moment of time during one fateful summer that find a manner, against multiple societal odds/norms of the era, to be together, albeit somewhat fleetingly.  If anything, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME would be more aptly labeled as a coming of age story for its one young adolescent character, who goes on both a journey of self discovery and learns to seize and live in the moment.  By Guadagnino's own admission, his film is about the beauty of desire and how two people intimately connect through their shared desires.   

One thing that CALL ME BY YOUR NAME also captures astoundingly well is the lazy, carefree days of a summer passing; the environments here feel alive.   The sun-drenched Italian village setting of the story is almost an invitingly sensual character in its own right, which fuels the needs of its starving for affection characters.  Having the film set in the 80's - during which time society's acceptance of homosexual unions weren't nearly as progressive minded as today - is of crucial importance, but the larger outside world for its characters help drive their personal journeys of discovering who they really are.  The intoxicatingly beautiful atmosphere is endlessly pleasing to gaze at all throughout CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, but it also serves as an inviting hook for the audience and personas that populate the story; its shows summer as a season of boundless time and endless possibilities, but only if one takes advantage of the latter.



Opening in 1983, the film introduces us to one of the aforementioned village's residents, 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet, in a performance of astoundingly naturalness and poise), who lives with his American archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his Italian mother (Amira Casar) and partakes in everything that's available for a young European teenager to take in during one summer (lots of reading, biking, loitering in parks, laying by poolsides and riverbanks, and journeying into the town square to hang with friends).  Elio's relatively humdrum summer changes forever with the appearance of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 25-year-old American grad student that's been granted a prestigious internship to work and live with Elio's father.  Tension initially ensues between Elio and Oliver, seeing as - gasp! - the guest is given Elio's room to stay for the summer.  Perhaps most initially grating to Elio is Oliver's nonchalant demeanor and manners; he finds it especially annoying when Oliver is, for example, late for breakfast or says goodbye by using the American colloquialism "later." 

There's one other thing that Elio finds particularly off-putting about Oliver: The man has a hypnotizing charm with everyone around him, and he's distractingly handsome and available.  There's also a reckless impulsiveness to Oliver with his throw caution to the wind outlook on, well, having fun.  He's also a man of such unbridled confidence that he has no problem correcting Elio's father on antiquity history, which catches Elio's attention.  As days and weeks go by, Elio and Oliver find themselves becoming closer friends and confiding in one another, and they begin to sense a more deeply intimate bond forming, although neither seem willing to act on it.  Unavoidably, both Elio and Oliver find it next to impossible to stave off the obvious sexual tension between them, which culminates in them giving into their urges, albeit behind carefully guarded and closed doors. 

The finest accolade I could bestow upon CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is that it rarely, if ever, feels inauthentic or artificial (aside from a final scene, more on that in a bit).  Guadagnino is not primarily interested in perfunctory story beats and manipulating his audience with contrived melodrama.  CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, to both its advantage and somewhat to its detriment, is essentially plotless.  Penned by industry veteran James Ivory, the film adaptation never traverses down logical story beats from point A to B and finally to C.  If anything, the film is a series of loose and free flowing vignettes that simultaneously captures the effervescent vibe of summer days and the growing sexual appetites of its two main characters.  There are times when CALL ME BY YOUR NAME feels like it's coasting by a bit too leisurely for its own good (the opening half of the film requires considerable patience from fidgety filmgoers), but once it finds its grove it develops and maintains a potent sense of urgency. 

Guadagnino's overall laid back and spare aesthetic style here also compliments the tone of the piece.  He's described this film as one of his "most calm" he's ever directed, and it shows.  Like a Bernardo Bertolucci before him, Guadagnino's lets scenes play out with a grounded simplicity that allows the actors to shine through to the forefront.  This lean and economical approach shows great sensitivity to the characters, allowing us to invest in them more thoroughly and understanding their impulses.  It's also quite revealing how many individual moments play out in relative silence.  I think that goes a long way to capture the painful awkwardness of first love and how difficult it can be to act on such emotions.  CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is one of the very rare dramas that lures you in without dialogue; it's more about breathless encounters and momentary instances when people try to connect, but fail at finding words to express their feelings. 

This, of course, leads into the sexual tension between Oliver and Elio, which begins the film with seemingly innocuous and casual touching, tender glances, and idle back and forth conversations, but eventually spills over into a full blown romance.  Guadagnino handles everything with an unexpectedly refreshing tenderness, which helps erode some concerns about the somewhat icky age gap between the characters (Oliver is, after all, in his mid-20's and Elio is in his mid-teens).  Elio does try to act upon his carnal sexual hungers for Oliver by straining to have a relationship with a local girl (Esther Garrel), who in turn develops strong feelings for Elio, but perhaps deep down senses that he really is not honestly reciprocating love back.  Elio's true heart lies with Oliver, and part of the allure of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is how both characters find a way to have a relationship with some semblance of normalcy in an era when gay love wasn't perceived as normal. 

The performances are everything in this film, and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is positively beguiling every time young Timothee Chalamet is on screen,  who fearlessly commits to his character in ways that very few young actors of his generation probably would.  It's one of the most convincingly raw performances that captures teenage angst, uncertainty, anxiety, and ultimately yearning that I've seen in quite some time; there's never a false beat in it.  Matching Chalamet is Armie Hammer, perhaps best known for obligatory Hollywood leading man roles before, but here he shows a remarkable range and courageous dedication to his very tricky role of Oliver that I frankly didn't think the actor was capable of harnessing.  Oliver is arguably the toughest character to pull off effectively here: he has to embody a self-assured bravado while also displaying a sincere vulnerability and willingness to give in to Elio's advances.  There's an unmistakable swagger to Oliver, but deep down he's as uncertain as Elio about what's to come of their relationship. 

Predictably, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME ends with crushing heartbreak, seeing as it's a film about summer love and, yes, all summers end.  It's painfully inevitable - and probably not a spoiler to relay - that Elio and Oliver can't be together, seeing as Oliver must eventually return stateside out of educational and occupational responsibilities.  That, and the pair live in the 80's, which makes any outing of their relationship a social death sentence.  One of the problems I had with CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is that it struggles in finding a satisfying ending to their story and instead hastily tags on a couple of scenes that perhaps didn't need to exist in the first place.  Granted, one is a crushingly moving moment between Elio and his father, featuring Stahlbarg giving a monologue of his career that should have netted him an Oscar nomination.  The other - and less necessary - scene is an epilogue that involves a phone call that was probably best left on the cutting room floor.  Ultimately, I don't think that CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is as powerfully rendered as other coming out dramas like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, CAROL and the Best Picture winning MOONLIGHT.  Yet, as a piercingly genuine portrait of teenage love and the whirlwind of disorienting emotions that comes as a result, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is nevertheless powerfully acted and hits all intended dramatic.  


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