Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay by James Ivory, from the novel of the same name by Andre Aciman
Starring Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg
A graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer) comes to Italy for 6 weeks of working as an assistant to an archaeology professor (Stuhlbarg). As part of the gig he’ll live with the professor’s family, including the professor’s 17 year-old son, Elio (Timothee Chalamet). Over the course of the 6 weeks, Oliver and Elio become close, and eventually have an affair. When Oliver leaves, Elio is devastated, having lost his first love.
Is It Any Good?
Call Me By Your Name is not what you’d call a ‘plot-heavy’ movie – it’s not a precision piece in that way. In fact, it’s far-closer to plotless than anything else, embracing an aesthetic of hanging out, enjoying the Italian sun, and getting laid.
And where another film of this type would fill in the gaps of all this hanging out and getting laid with characters who speak in personal philosophies, rather than how people actually speak, Call Me By Your Name prefers to avoid directness altogether, shading subtle and gently elliptical. In this way, the characters tend to speak around the edges of things, which leaves us to understand events at precisely the same rate they do. It’s how the movie manages to keep us invested in the story
The first half-hour is probably best, passing quickly and easily. Yes, there isn’t much that happens, just a variety of hanging out scenes and silent passages as we get to know the characters, but there isn’t a lingering sense of boredom with it, either. Rather, everything feels couched in a low-grade mystery, as we learn about the characters. Better, we learn about them as we would if they were real people, by observing what they do, not what they say.
Unfortunately, there is a lull in the film around the one hour mark. At the point where the Oliver/Elio affair should pick up steam, Oliver withdraws from it a bit, leaving Elio to pine for him. Meaning we have to endure Elio’s lingering looks, longing, and a couple of straight-up musical interludes that remind one of the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” sequence from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But where that sequence had a sort of goofy charm, these sequences are a maudlin drag.
To be fair, I understand why Oliver backs away from Elio when he does, causing the lull in the film – Oliver is clear about that when it happens. But having clear motivations does not mean the movie needs to circle around in a holding pattern for 20 minutes before getting back into it.
Once the affair gets going again the film improves as the discomfort, exploration and rawness of the emotions take over. Ultimately, though, the story overstays itself. At the point where it should end – just after the professor (Stuhlbarg) lets Elio know he’s aware of what the boys have been doing, and his acceptance of it, the film lingers about, jumping ahead six months to winter in Italy and a phone call from Oliver. This was unneeded for the simple fact that it’s only purpose was to underline that sense of heartbreak Elio already experienced.
In a nutshell, that’s the overriding complaint with the film – it overstays itself. Where scenes should end, they go on, and where the film should end, it goes on.
Because the movie is hardly about the plot, or the intricacies of the scripted dialog – this is not Aaron Sorkin we’re talking about here – the interplay of the actors is what’s going to make, or break, the film. Fortunately, the leads get the job done, having easy charm and comfort with one another. Better, the camera adores them – even Michael Stuhlbarg, who has honestly never really looked better.
Hammer is stellar, finally building on the promise he displayed in The Social Network, but has otherwise sort-of squandered since then. He easily nails that attitude of knowing a thing or two, while still being aware of who his superiors are, and eager to please them. Better, he’s actually loose and fun.
Chalamet, of course, is the standout. In Lady Bird he was such a gross, self-absorbed douchebag – maybe I’m over-selling that one, but play along with me – and to see him play the role here as so guileless and fresh, is almost shocking. And in the scenes here that might have been played as if the teen were obsessed, and borderline-creepy, he makes them genuine. He is not a predator of any sort, but a dumb kid, smitten by a crush. He makes this young man real. Better, because his performance is not made of big moments and broad gestures he just gets to exist, which is the best sort of performance to give.
Stuhlbarg, of course, is the unsung hero of the movie. As it turned out, I re-watched Steve Jobs just a few days before this, where Stuhlbarg played Apple programmer Andy Herzfeld. In that movie he is so avoidant, so awkward, so…intimidated, that it was a shock to see him here as the professor, where he is loving, confident, and knowing. And by confident, I don’t mean arrogant, or superior. I mean the type of person who’s sure of himself in the way smart people are without needing to beat people over the head with it.
Much is made of the scene almost at the end, where Stuhlbarg makes it clear to Elio he knows what was going on with Elio and Oliver, and that he is accepting of it. He gives a gentle, easy speech, the kind of thing – in a sense – I wish I’d gotten from my own father. It’s the kind of understanding I hope I give to my own son. But as good as Stuhlbarg is in giving it – whatever you do, don’t blow up this speech in your head ahead of time as being an overblown tour-de-force, because it might disappoint you – better is Chalamet. Being an actor is as much about acting as re-acting, and while Stuhlbarg is stellar in giving this speech, it is Chalamet’s subtle reactions – on his face and in his movements – that make the moment.
Is This Movie A Problem?
Call Me By Your Name is the story about a 24 year-old man having an affair with a 17 year-old kid. Never mind that the actors playing them look both older and younger than their respective parts, because I’m taking it at face value, for the sake of the movie, that the characters are who/what they are said to be.
The question then is – should the story of this movie be a problem? Specifically, the age gap between the characters?
If the characters were each a decade older, it wouldn’t be – nobody would claim it was. That’s because by then the characters would be mature enough – relatively speaking – and there would be no hint of one exploiting the other. But that they are the age they are does raise that specter of exploitation.
Yet, there didn’t seem to be much hell raised about it for this film. Perhaps that’s because the film barely made any money worldwide, and didn’t really register as much beyond a critical darling. Perhaps it’s because the main characters were males.
But ask yourself, if the sexes were flipped, and these were females – or better, make the couple completely hetero, does that change the perception of the film. Instead of being a sweet film about first romance and the like, is it suddenly something different? Would an older man going after a younger woman make the story problematic? Or vice versa?
Even as I don’t know the ultimate answer to the question, I did have a weird feeling watching the movie of trying to reconcile the romance of it with that adult part of me that says, “This is probably not entirely Kosher.”
Better Than Best?
This is the problem with 2017 being so fresh in mind as of this writing – there’s no time to have developed any perspective on it’s films. So while I thought Best Picture 2017, The Shape of Water, was quite good and had many elements in it I thought were delicious – I love Michael Shannon – I can’t say if it was really much better than Call Me By Your Name. For now, I suspect we’ll have to call this a push.
The reality, though, is the true Best Picture of 2017 was not only not nominated for Best Picture, it was not nominated for any Oscars at all. That would be David Lowry’s low-budget A Ghost Story. Now, I’m the first to admit that a 90-minute film, without much dialog and lots of long, ponderous takes, including an epic five-minute long scene of a character grief-eating the hell out of a pie, is not for everyone’s tastes. But it clearly was for my tastes, and the film left me utterly blown-away both times I’ve seen it.
There is so much damn smoking in this film – everybody does it. It might have been period-appropriate, or Italy-appropriate, but it was so distracting. Eventually it got to the point where I turned to my wife and said, “If they really smoke this much in Italy, we are never going there.” She did not disagree.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Usually he’s playing some sort of pasty geek, or schlubbish bureaucrat, or repressed intellectual, and here he’s so much not that.
 I make the ‘Kosher’ pun because the main characters in this movies are all Jewish. Your welcome.