Call Me By Your Name, beloved by critics and audiences alike; nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award as well as Leading Actor & Adapted Screenplay; and reviewed frequently as sumptuous, sensual, languid, aching and so on. Just as I thought I'd missed it at the cinema, a local Odeon eked out one final and belated screening so, I cancelled everything.
Indeed, this film from director Luca Guadagnino delivered all that was promised and, on that basis, I so wanted to love it. A coming-of-age-sexual-awakening type of affair, cradled, one long hot summer, in the Eden of Lombardy, this movie is slow — good, I like slow — and nothing much really happens, rather it languishes in the erotic pheromones emitted by the perspiration of its own effort.
Nobody can deny Timotheé Chalamet gives a truly astonishing performance as Elio Perlman, the bookish, multilingual teenage son of a Jewish academic (played touchingly, if at times with an irritating campness, by Michael Stuhlbarg). The film hinges on this central performance and is certainly worth seeing for Chalamet. I wouldn't mind at all if he took the Oscar. However, much else is found lacking, vacuous, a hypnotic magic trick designed to conjure the illusion of substance but, on closer scrutiny, is just a bit self-indulgent. The photography and script (screenplay by James Ivory) both superficially imply depth, making all the right noises to have us clutching at our chests and flaring our nostrils with appreciation, but alas this soufflé, while photogenic, is mostly air.
The family's Jewishness is a detail introduced pointedly with close-ups of a Star of David pendant and yet curiously inconsequential. While middle-class, secular Jewishness never fails to lend a person a certain neo-liberal, intellectual credence, the practical significance for these characters remains lost on me. Perhaps a hangover from André Aciman's 2007 novel of the same name —Aciman himself an Egyptian Sephardic Jew — though the story is fiction and not a memoir.
Oliver, a graduate Classics student, arrives at the family's enormous villa on the Italian Riviera to intern with Professor Perlman for six weeks; to help catalogue a vague collection of Hellenic sculpture and generally add to the all-round erudition and scholarly plumage of this impossibly perfect family. Armie Hammer, in an almost burlesque bit of casting, surges onto the scene like the strapping Aryan Adonis that he is there to represent — the idyllic male form — and Elio's desire is awakened.
But Hammer's Oliver is not the only idyll that features front and centre in Call Me By Your Name. The verdant landscape, the ripe and varied orchard, the sleepy, sun-drenched village of Crema, all droop under the weight of gorgeous abundance. This self-conscious excess upstages everything: Peter Bradshaw in his five-star Guardian review thinks 'Their summer romance is saturated with poetic languor and a deeply sophisticated sensuality' and such is the tone of critics in general, that the setting is a character unto itself. However, such languor, poetic as it may seem, is, underneath, a poem composed to deliberately obfuscate and exclude. As Elio's homo-erotic sensibilities grind into gear so does my gluttonous desire for such a life, such sophistication. I want to eat those apricots right off the tree but I will never be so rich, so educated or so cosmopolitan as to deserve those apricots; a horrible realisation that plunges quickly into a heavy, sickening feeling of heatstroke and having feasted on too much rich food; and finally into a profound resentment: Why, this is nothing but Real Estate porn.
In fact, Richard Brody, in The New Yorker, says 'The intimacy of Elio and Oliver is matched by very little cinematic intimacy [...] Guadagnino rarely lets himself get close to the characters, because he seems to wish never to lose sight of the expensive architecture, the lavish furnishings, the travelogue locations, the manicured lighting, the accoutrements that fabricate the sense of order and beauty, luxury, calm, and sensuality [...] All that’s missing is the Web site offering Elio-and-Oliver tours through the Italian countryside, with a stopover at the Perlman villa'. I do, however, disagree with Brody's need for the characters to be constantly discussing their opinions and experiences. This is film, not theatre, and much can be conveyed of a character's interior by the sharing of a fleeting look or a nervous swallow.
Ellen E Jones (also in The Guardian) wants us to believe this coming-of-age tale 'beautifully conveys the universality of a specific human story', but can anything that confines itself within the high walls surrounding such a narrow echelon of society really be deemed universal? Does Guadagnino, on the premise that the Perlmans have the excellent good taste not to gild their home like a Trump Towers eyesore, expect me to identify with them, to feel what they feel, with the lavish breadth of time and money and social standing that sets them way apart from almost anyone I know? The temptation here is to think you are like these people, when really all you want is to be them.
Most reviews note Elio's precocious musical abilities and one or two even describe him as a genius. But of course he is a genius: he has literally nothing else to do all day but read and think and transcribe Bach on his baby grand piano. The family spends all its summers, Hanukkahs and Christmases hanging around in Italy being brilliant, and I dare say Elio is hardly returning to New York in term time to a Saturday job toasting waffles at the iHop in Jamaica, Queens. With his pedigree he bloody well ought to be a genius. No odds were overcome in the process.
On that note, let us digress, at last, from my personal, chippy, working class grumblings and address the real shadow on the lung of this otherwise radiant film: the love. Spoiler alert, the love is not only consummated, it is consensual and socially acceptable. Now, I, like many others, applaud this refreshing portrait of gay love sans violence, repression, identity politics and AIDS. At last, a love affair between two men allowed to flourish without the threat of tragedy we have shamefully come to expect (Brokeback Mountain; Moonlight; Holding The Man). Hoorah! And yet, this story is so entirely free from conflict that it contains precious little drama. Midway through the plot Oliver requites Elio's infatuation and voila! It's gayme on. Nobody minds and the pair have a lovely time discovering one another's bodies. Here, without the peril or conflict critical to sustaining a plot, any plot, our anticipation has been satisfied and the film loses its tautness, it slackens and sticks to the table like a wet gluten-free spaghetti noodle. Unfortunately drama requires conflict, that's just science. Post-coitus, it is no longer enough to show beautiful, half naked men merrily basking in an orchard or cavorting in a picturesque river scene, the tension has dropped out of the story's bottom. Many of these frames would be better featured as urn motif than mainstream cinema.
Then again, perhaps that was the director's intention, to bring Greco-Roman fable into a contemporary setting. The film's very title is half of Oliver's instruction to Elio to 'Call me by your name, and I'll call you by mine', a moment which, for me, unambiguously invokes Nemesis luring Narcissus to the pool where he will idle away the days staring at his own reflection and eventually succumb to a watery death as punishment for his hubris. Their names, Elio and Oliver, almost anagrams of one another, mingle like Viola and Olivia, implying a conjoining of two into one, like man with his reflection. While for some this may seem a fabulously Byronic notion, imagine for a moment, if you will, holding your lover's face while you stare into their eyes and then uttering YOUR OWN NAME. Such moments, drunk on the pastoral bliss of Italian holidays, graze the surface of parody.
But more than parody, I would go as far as to call the whole premise kitsch. Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being defines kitsch as 'the absolute denial of shit.' Admittedly Kundera is writing in a political sense and applying the artistic qualities of kitsch to communist doctrine, however, the aesthetic principles apply. Although Guadagnino makes attempts at naked humanity, at awkward embarrassment —most notably in an erotic scene featuring a juicy peach — he cannot fully commit to error, to fumbling, he is in absolute denial of ugly while asking us to believe this is real life. Call me By Your Name takes itself so seriously that there are no cracks for the light to get in.
Saving grace comes late in the day at the eventual parting of Oliver and Elio. Such parting is sweet sorrow — in no way acrimonious — but kills all the same. Elio is heartbroken and Chalamet's virtuosic acting talent shifts into a brand new gear. Stuhlbarg, as that adorably modern, liberal and implausibly communicative father everyone wishes they had, delivers a tender speech (extract below) on the merits of pain, quietly, sympathetically urging his son to feel and feel deeply. Here, all the tolerance, love and acceptance in the world cannot slake the excruciating ache of first love lost.
"In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!"
- Professor Perlman in Call Me By Your Name