Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: James Ivory; Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
Cinematographer: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Producer: Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, Rodrigo Teixeira, Marco Morabito, James Ivory, and Howard Rosenman
by Jon Cvack
Every year there’re those one or two films that provide a flawless experience. I could argue why other films seem misplaced on the Year’s Best, but ultimately, when it comes to a certain caliber of filmmaking, it all depends on taste.* Everyone hopes to achieve this feeling with each new piece of art; that’ll it be a favorite of the year, or - even better - one of the best of the decade, or - even better - the greatest movie ever made. It rarely occurs, but when it does, it leaves you with that lingering inexplicable feeling which can last weeks. Call Me By Your Name has been labeled a "Gay Love Story", but it’s arguably one of the greatest love stories ever made; breaking down the division between gay and straight cinema once and for all.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) was the first time I ever saw a “Gay Love Story”, providing a pretty good and heartbreaking look at a long love affair between two cowboys, along with examining the very foundation of masculinity. I revisited the film a few years later and realized the power of story over topic, and how although Brokeback Mountain was a good movie with amazing performances, I never connected with the characters, as I’m neither a tough guy or a cowboy and thus the rugged masculinity was something I struggled to relate to.
The same issue occurred with Moonlight (2016), which while a very good movie, still felt as though something was missing from the affair; essentially exploring similar ideas as Brokeback, except focused on urban rather than rural America. In such an environment, hyper masculinity thrives, in which those with the most courage (expressed through violence) gain respect, dividing real from fake men, leading us to assume homosexuality can't possibly work within such a toxic world. Barry Jenkins flips these assumptions on their head, though unfortunately, the love story between Chiron and Kevin, while ending beautifully, ignores the initial spark between young lovers. Teenage Chiron’s timid personality just didn’t off enough richness to forge as solid a bond with Kevin in youth.
Ultimately, while both films came close, I never fully connected with the other set of characters, making me wonder if it was because they were "Gay Love Stories" and I was only looking for superficial reasons to convince myself otherwise; that is, did I like and not love these films because they unrelatable or because of some more systemic reason. I knew Call Me By Your Name was a similar story, though not knowing the acclaim it would receive, I watched the preview, seeing what looked like an absolutely gorgeous film. Soon it was positioned at the top of most critics lists, and having loved Timothée Chalamet in Ladybird (2017), I rushed to see it before it left theaters.
It opens up in the 1980s in an Italian countryside during the summer, at a cottage which is surrounded by apricot trees, rented by an archaeology professor Mr. Pearlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), his wife Annella (Amira Casar), and their 17-year old son Elio (Chalamet) who spends his days with his headphones on, listening to piano, transcribing the music, broken up by flying through books and hanging out with some of the local girls.
Mr. Perl and Annela have selected a new graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) to join them for their summer internship and help with some research. I was a bit turned off by Hammer, initially. I haven’t seen him since The Social Network (2010) where he created one of the most bro-y characters I’ve ever watched. He maintains a similar confidence and attitude in this film, and yet provides an additional layer of complexity which doesn’t necessarily forgive or excuse what he does, but creates enough dimension in the character to create of the greatest romantic duos to ever grace the screen (or so I expect). We follow the characters as it moves from resentment on Elio’s end (having to give up his room and deal with Oliver’s bro-yness) and Oliver's complete indifference to subtle touches and innocent flirtation to the first kiss and all of the passion it brings.
Most people I know have experienced a heart crushing love, falling into obsession as desire takes complete control of your mind and body, and all else takes a back seat. If it was you, you were fine with, and if it was your friend, you were pissed. In my own experience I simply remember the sheer elation in finally getting to be intimate for the first time with someone I cared deeply about; a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. As quick as it arrives the first problem occurs - there’s a fight one night, more follow, and soon the break up arrives, and whether a clean break or dragging on for months after that, all you end up with is chasing that initial seemingly perfect feeling which was not at all perfect.
Call Me By Your Name captures this specific moment in time, in which everything from the production design to photography to characters to setting add up to create a world so vivid that anyone - old or young, gay or straight, bigoted or not - could connect to what Elio was experiencing, or at least anyone who’s gone through a similar coming of age moment. When I think back to my first love I recall the initial conversations we had through AIM, not knowing who she was, then meeting her and thinking she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen; in disbelief that someone like that could like me. From there, it quickly descended into a long, chaotic mess, extending across years worth of time. The details are some of the most embarrassing moments of my life, from accepting the way she acted for so long and for how I acted myself, all while maintaining the hope that things could return to that first moment. Many people have similar experiences with love - and with only a cliche to suffice - they too have blinders on as the relationship becomes unsustainable; scared that they’ll never find another person ever again, never able to grasp all of the glaring fundamental problems until years later. When I look back at my first, I can laugh and cringe at how naive I was, while respecting how powerful those feelings were.
The greatest Coming of Age stories create distinct atmosphere. When I think of the best, it’s often Stand by Me (1986), My Girl (1991), and Now and Then’s (1995) ability to take you back to childhood summers, before you and your friends had to work; in which the town was the entire world, creating a desire for adventure; often involving a mystery that needs to be solved and inspiring thousands of kids all over the world to go and discover the difference between fantasy and reality.
Call Me By Your Name isn’t as extreme in plot, yet the mystery remains just as prominent. How will these two characters pull off a romance in such an intimate setting? Set in an old beautiful house with a labyrinth of corridors and gardens, leading to pools and ponds and open laws, with guests, friends, and family everywhere. I could feel the heat of the sun, offering that perfect temperature that allows you to remain outdoors for hours. With its vibrant color, it moves beyond a look and actually feels idyllic. Everyone seems relaxed, down to the apricot juice to cool them off and chilled wine later in the evening.
We watch as Oliver first offers an innocuous touch during the volleyball game as Elio cramps up, with his latest and very pretty female prospect Marzia (Esther Garrel) watching on, not suspecting anything, and slowly things intensify, culminating in one of the best shots this year, as Oliver and Elio stop in front of some statue, with Elio explaining its meaning, the camera then revealing it as a WWI memorial. They walk around it and toward the post office, arriving at the precipice of their desire. The first kiss follows shortly after.
After writing a short thought blurb on Facebook, I had one person say Oliver was a predator. I never even thought about the situation. I wondered what the age of consent would be in Italy at the time, but it was a fleeting thought, quickly outweighed by Elio’s maturity and insight, though never becoming a full adult. There’s an immaturity to his view of the world which only experience could fill, which takes me back to what I said about first loves in that the passion simply overtakes you. For Elio it evolved to love, and for Oliver it was lust.
One of the most powerful things about the film - never explicitly stated- is that no one in this film can be open about their sexuality. Being years older, and as hinted at throughout the story, Oliver understands the potential consequences, and having had to push his desires aside throughout all his life, mentioning his father who would freak and the woman he’s about to marry, I see a man whose guilt prevented him from ever even considering coming out. The AIDS epidemic was right around the corner, which made the setting all the more tranquil; as though the calm before the storm, when Gay Rights would charge to the forefront of debate.
Concealment runs throughout the story, extending to Mr. Perlman who also offers subtle gestures toward his own sexuality before the final reveal at the end. In mild ways I wish he didn’t even give such an extensive speech at the end of the film, as with the hints scattered throughout the story, his point could have gotten across with half the specificity. And yet the speech dwells in my mind, in which we see how all these characters are connected - to the father who was unable to do anything about his sexuality or even experience the same beautiful opportunity, instead opting for tradition, which produced Elio who gets to experience the wonder of lust and love. Oliver understands the dangers, willing to follow his instincts while balancing a more traditional relationship. All of them demands their secrets are kept, described and shown in a way that is absolutely heartbreaking. The film hardly even touches on politics, and yet if there was a bridge that could unite audiences, I think this film could accomplish it.
I struggle to think of a romantic film that produced such empathy, creating a waterfall of nostalgia and beauty, creating a story I think could be remembered as one of the finest lover stories ever made.
BELOW: A magnficiently complex oner
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