And here we are! With the lone exception of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (which I’ll watch through digital rental in a couple of weeks), I’m caught up on all of the major Academy Awards nominees. I plan to start my Top 25 of 2017 features over the next day or two. But, for the moment, I focus on the critically acclaimed drama Call Me by Your Name.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, the drama takes place in 1983 Italy and focuses upon the developing relationship between Hammer’s Oliver and Chalamet’s Elio. Oliver is older and wiser, with more education and life experience, whereas Elio is only seventeen and struggling to figure out not only the world around him but, like all teenagers, himself, as well. Initially resistant to Oliver’s charms and, in fact, his very presence, Elio is eventually won over by Oliver’s charisma and charm and allows himself to be taken on a proverbial journey of discovery.
For me, the film is a mixed bag. Chalamet has gotten much awards attention for his performance. His role as Elio certainly grants him more opportunity to show range than the others in the film. And he unquestionably does a fine job, though I’m not ready to lay claim that he does better than others who could have potentially garnered a nomination in his place, such as Tom Hanks for The Post. Those musings aside, Chalamet’s role as Elio is complex and he turns in an appropriately layered performance that is complimented well by the others in the cast.
Armie Hammer’s Oliver is confident and comfortable in his own skin, and Hammer is equally confident and comfortable in Oliver’s skin, as well. Oliver has a magnetic personality and when he shows up to the small Italian town as an assistant to Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), everybody notices. Speaking of Elio’s father, Stuhlbarg doesn’t serve much of a purpose outside of a purely mechanical storytelling device until the end, when he finally gets a moment to shine. He squeezes all he can out of the opportunity and provides one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
By setting the film in the eighties, Guadagnino places Oliver and Elio right in the middle of the era at which homophobia may have been at its highest (at least outwardly so). HIV and AIDS were among the biggest topics of discussion throughout the decade and many pointed the figure squarely at what would eventually come to be known as the LGBTQ community. Neither Oliver nor Elio are ever explicitly identified as homosexual. Both have had relationships with women and even after discovering each other, continue to do so. And while some might consider that a slight or a dismissiveness towards the homosexual lifestyle, that is absolutely not Guadagnino’s intent.
Instead, the relationship between the Oliver and Elio is presented as just another relationship, not defined by or constrained by gender. Elio experiences and expresses some fear and confusion at the outset but quickly lets it pass and embraces his own feelings and those of Oliver, as well. Any hesitation on Oliver’s part is not due to anything related to sexuality but rather the dynamic among them, seeing as how Elio is the son of Oliver’s teacher and mentor. So, Guadagnino does what’s right by not slapping labels on the relationship and instead simply presents Oliver and Elio as two people with an attraction and a connection. They just so happen to also both be male. I’m a heterosexual male, yet their relationship was so relatable that I was having callbacks to some of my own past experiences with women. That’s exactly the kind of effect this type of story should have and Guadagnino makes a tremendous point in pulling it off. I can’t imagine a more level-headed, fair-minded, or openhearted approach to this narrative.
On the other hand, the film does have a couple of issues, as well. The dialogue isn’t exactly the most dazzling that we’ve heard in this year’s Oscar contenders. It’s natural and organic. But it isn’t always captivating or interesting. That only compounds the bigger issue of the film’s length and editing. There are many films that are longer than Call Me by Your Name, but no matter what the running time of any given film may be, the time should be filled with pertinent and engaging material that flows naturally and concludes logically.
While the film isn’t lacking any internal logic (everything makes sense), it suffers from some flow issues and is hampered to a far greater degree by its stubborn refusal to end. Just when the viewer feels as if the narrative and character arcs have all reached a sensible and satisfying conclusion, there’s another scene. And then one more. And one more. There are at least fifteen minutes towards the end of the film that are truthfully unnecessary and the ultimate denouement could have been reached without the entire subplot that they entail. As a result, the 132-minute film begins to feel longer than it actually is, which is never a good thing. Again, it doesn’t matter how long a film actually is; it only matters how long it feels. And the film drags as it approaches the climax, and then continues after the climax has long passed.
In spite of the minimal number of issues, Call Me by Your Name is a worthy journey, even if its a journey I can only envision taking once. Much like another 2017 critical darling in the form of Lady Bird, the film doesn’t have much of anything new to add to its particular conversation, but it does a good job of getting its point of “love is love” across to the audience. It comes off a little better on paper than in execution due to its occasional inefficient storytelling, but Call Me by Your Name is a well-made film with solid performances and something important enough to say that it doesn’t matter if we’ve heard it before – it merits repeating. But, again, from this particular movie . . . only once.
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