Call Me By Your Name
Edwin Arnaudin: Hot take — the only great parts about the widely acclaimed Call Me By Your Name are the three original songs by Sufjan Stevens.
Bruce Steele: The songs are perfect, indeed. I just added them to my Amazon Music favorites list last night. As for the rest, well… “Great” is a high bar, but I’d put Timothée Chalamet’s performance as 17-year-old Elio up there, and maybe Michael Stuhlbarg’s, as Elio’s dad. What’s not great, for me anyway, is the chemistry between Chalamet and Armie Hammer, playing Oliver, the summer houseguest Elio develops a crush on.
Edwin: I never really bought their relationship. Early interactions typically carry an antagonistic tone, which is certainly part of many relationships’ starts (e.g. boys throwing rocks at girls on a playground). But the things they say to one another and the ways the actors deliver these lines feel like they were written by a computer program.
Bruce: You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the novelist, Andre Aciman, teaches literary theory. His widely praised but little read book, published in 2007, is even more esoteric, with deep dives into classical studies and the philosophy of poetry. I think the screenplay, by James Ivory, wisely tones that down, and it has stretches of brilliance. But the film’s director, Luca Guadagnino, can’t seem to find a pace he’s happy with, letting some scenes expand generously while others are literally chopped off as if the movie reels were in the wrong order.
Edwin: I was floored by Guadagnino’s 2016 film A Bigger Splash, which was full of energetic direction, daring shots and passionate performances — plus a rollicking Ralph Fiennes dance number set to The Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue." In addition to the general lack of flow in Guadagnino’s follow-up, the filmmaking here is sadly flat. The Northern Italian towns in which it’s shot are gorgeous, as are most of the characters, but he barely moves his camera and offers little else remarkable on a technical level.
Bruce: He definitely steps back in favor of longer shots and few closeups. The movie is set in the early 1980s (cue Psychedelic Furs’ 1982 hit “Love My Way”), so I’m thinking the filmmaking is Guadagnino’s attempt to mimic the distance and inconsistency of memory. Some scenes — Elio, a music prodigy, playing the piano for Oliver; the two of them circling their unspoken mutual desire in a town square — are shot in single long takes, as if these are the moments Elio remembers best, and they are engrossing and memorable. But what Elio really would remember most vividly, making love with Oliver, gets the “pan to the window” and “cut to the morning after” treatment.
Edwin: Hiding from that central experience is in keeping with the overall lack of convincing passion between them. Their romance is one of awkward back rubs, bizarre facial expressions and quasi-wrestling hugging. To each their own, but arriving the same weekend as the unflinchingly realistic gay bedroom scenes of BPM hit local theaters — well, theater — Call Me By Your Name feels edited for TV by comparison. Did much else work for you here?
Bruce: I liked the movie better on second viewing, enjoying it as a treatise on memory and ill-placed affections rather than the steamy evocation of first love other critics are somehow seeing. Revisiting the film, it’s so much easier to see what a conflicted jerk Oliver really is. Interestingly, among my gay male friends online, the love-hate divide on the film was easy to define: Those who thought Armie Hammer was hot liked the movie. Those he left cold did not. To what do you attribute the Hammer Oscar buzz?
Edwin: I’m mystified that he’s in the Oscar conversation at all, and he’s someone I’ve typically liked since first seeing him in The Social Network. My best guess is a combination of rewarding a “movie star” who’s been more miss than hit at the box office for taking on a “serious actor” role, and some sort of (unmerited) Brokeback Mountain-esque equal distribution of acclaim between straight actors playing gay lovers. And while I think Stuhlbarg is good, possibly to the point of being a Best Supporting Actor finalist, I’d rather see him nominated for The Shape of Water.
Bruce: I’d be happy to see Stuhlbarg nominated for either role. He’s had quite a year. (We could debate the meanings of his final speech here, but that would spoil too much.) I’ll also be happy for Chalamet’s nomination, earned in large part for a near-wordless two-minute-plus shot with the final credits. Other than someone calling “Elio” at the end of that shot, the last words spoken in the movie are “I remember everything,” which is a blessing and a curse, in life and in this film. One last thing I have to ask: What’s with that “Call me by your name” business?
Edwin: It’s some goofy business for sure. Like rationale for Hammer’s awards buzz, I don’t have a great answer handy, but maybe Oliver’s request to be referred to as Elio is a metaphor for the idiosyncrasies of love, as well as the limitations of their relationship for viewers like myself. How do you read it?
Bruce: I assume it’s intended as some kind of metaphor for the merging identities of same-sex lovers, but it just sounds deranged. It’s emblematic of the movie’s hit-and-miss approach to passion. Hit: Chalamet. Miss: The most erotic scene involves Elio and a piece of fruit. So it’s not the best gay movie of the year — BPM wins that honor — nor the worst (Beach Rats, anyone?), but I respect that it’s the most sexually amorphous. Both Elio and Oliver have girlfriends, who reflect each man’s character in interesting ways. Indeed, it’s full of interesting ideas, including about cinema itself. It will be the topic of countless academic papers — which may not be the best recommendation for a love story. With “A”-worthy music, a number of nice moments and a solid “C” for fervor, I have to settle on a wavering B for a final grade.
Edwin: Thankfully, no one saw Beach Rats, so we're okay there. Speaking of the film's young women, Esther Garrel as Elio's lady friend Marzia is probably my favorite character in Call Me By Your Name, not only for her physical and emotional attractiveness, but the complex manner with which she reacts to being cast aside. If a heterosexual relationship in a gay film is its most successful human connection, that really doesn't bode well for the work overall. After a second viewing that only solidified its pros and cons for me, the best I can do is a generous C-plus.
Grade: B-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre.
(Photos: Sony Pictures Classics)