Call Me by Your Name is a coming-of-age romance set in the early 80s that speaks directly and profoundly to today. Well performed, with superb cinematography that fully exploits the gorgeous regional Italian setting.
I couldn’t stand Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino’s previous films A Bigger Splash and I Am Love. Indeed, I held both in such contempt that I’d written the guy off. Big mistake! Call Me by Your Name is an A-grade coming-of-age romance, beautifully shot and performed.
The setting – the regional north of Italy in the full bloom of summer, 1983 – is idyllic, and fully exploited by some superb cinematography. There are abundant shots of apricot-laden trees, grassy countryside, rock pools and a reed-lined lake offering clear, cooling waters for dippers…
17yo Elio (a standout Timothée Chalamet) lives with his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) in an elegant and expansive ancestral villa overlooking picturesque grounds within easy cycling distance of the quiet, old and very lovely local village. In between transposing music and playing piano, Elio wiles away his time swimming, picking at luscious food served up by the resident servants, cycling, lazing about, reading, or hanging out with his almost-girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel). Oh, and smoking. A lot of smoking.
Enter mid-20s American hunk and doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer), who arrives for 6 weeks of tutelage and field work with the good professor. He causes quite a stir with the local girls, and it’s not long before one is homing in on him. However, from the outset there is tension between Elio and Oliver, and it soon emerges that they are strongly attracted to each other. Of course, in country Italy of 1983, same-sex love is publicly verboten, and each does his best to deny his feelings for the other – ultimately to no avail. Is there anything sweeter than forbidden fruit?
Speaking of which, there is a masturbation scene involving a peach that is reminiscent of the infamous liver incident in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Frankly, it’s pretty yuk. It’s probably supposed to be a moving demonstration of a lover’s complete acceptance of his partner’s physicality, but I suspect this will not get through to those viewers who find their gag reflex triggered. In the context of a capital ‘R’ romance like this, which otherwise takes a subtle and under-stated approach to sex scenes, the peach thingo is tonally jarring and distracting. Indeed, there’s a danger that the film will be remembered for The Peach, rather than as an aesthetically ravishing, adroitly managed and astutely detailed depiction of the slow and tender blooming and emotional extremes of irresistibly overpowering, all-engulfing sexual love.
Call Me by Your Name has been swooned over by reviewers generally, many of whom have succumbed to the lemming effect and declared it a “masterpiece.” I say it’s not. For a start, it’s all a bit too-too. The setting is paradisical. The lovers are fine-looking people from privileged old-money backgrounds, well-educated, sophisticated, intelligent, talented. The world presented in the film is an idealised one inaccessible for most of us, and the love story at its core buys into all the usual simplistic Hollywood romantic myths. We’re dealing with Big Love here, literature love, all the more potent and romantic for being doomed (no arguments about who’s gonna take the garbage out, no discovery of annoying personal habits, no mundane responsibilities of ordinary life to negotiate).
One of the most memorable scenes of the film arrives late, when Elio’s idyllic Dad delivers the most eloquent of soliloquies in which he expresses his envy and admiration of his son’s courage in daring to follow his heart. Inspirational and affecting certainly, but still the stuff of capital ‘R’ romance. For instance, would any parent in 1983, when HIV/AIDS was considered to be mostly a gay disease and paranoia was at its peak, not even express concern over the issue in a heart-to-heart? I think not.
I’ve gotta say, though, the final scene is a stunning reality check that jolts us out of the carefully cultivated warm and fuzzy romantic milieu, underscoring the inhumanity, injustice and tragic personal tolls exacted by 1980s mainstream society’s intolerance of same-sex love. It’s impossible not to contrast the attitudes of 1983 with those of today. As dark as today’s world seems, in some ways, at least, we have progressed. If Call Me by Your Name has a claim to greatness, for me it’s in this resounding and profound parting message, which it articulates more powerfully than any other film I’ve seen.
Movie Website: http://sonyclassics.com/callmebyyourname/
Call Me by Your Name features: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: James Ivory and Luca Guadagnino (adapted from the novel by André Aciman)
Runtime: 132 min
Australian release date: Call Me by Your Name in Australian cinemas from 26 Dec 2017
For complete list of film reviews published on this site see Movie Review Archives