As we get into awards season for movies released in 2017, expect to hear a lot of praise heaped upon Call Me by Your Name, a deeply romantic gay coming-of-age tale directed by Luca Guadagnino from a screenplay by James Ivory, based upon André Aciman’s 2007 novel. Count this reviewer among the few who were not totally ravished by it. Your mileage may vary.
Don’t get me wrong: Call Me by Your Name is a gorgeous film boasting sympathetic (if not particularly well-developed) characters and strong performances – especially from Timothée Chalamet as Elio, the 17-year-old protagonist. It’s visually stunning travel porn, shot in and around Crema, Bergamo and Lake Garda in northern Italy. The cinematography and lighting are to die for. It celebrates beauty, art, music, culture, history, learning and supportive parenting: all to the good.
Call Me by Your Name captures the intensity of first love in a same-sex relationship circa 1983, untainted by the fear of AIDS or the other assorted dooms typically accorded to gay couples in the movies. With his hip, compassionate, openminded parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar), Elio doesn’t even have to fear being outed. Only eventual separation – a fate that befalls many a romance, regardless of gender match – hangs over the outcome of this pairing.
But narratively speaking, nothing much actually happens in this film. There’s internal turmoil, but visually it all seems rather static. Mostly, Elio spends his time pining for handsome, breezy Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student who comes to the family’s vacation villa to work with Elio’s professor father on an archaeology project. Elio offers to show him around; the two ride bicycles and go swimming together; Oliver critiques Elio’s musical compositions and performances. Oliver seems, perhaps, to return Elio’s interest, but is very guarded about his bisexuality. For the first half or more of the film, Hammer plays him as almost entirely opaque, and the two young men interact in ways that seem off-puttingly skittish and noncommittal until the third act, flirtation mainly taking the forms of horseplay and of flaunting their prowess with women.
Perhaps we are meant to experience this tentative dance of attraction as a necessity of socially unenlightened times in a Catholic country. From this female viewer’s perspective, it reads more as a meditation on what happens when two men try to communicate on an emotional level when neither has been trained to talk about feelings. If, in terms of communication strategies, men are from Mars and women from Venus, and heterosexual relationships are baffling enough, how then do two Martians manage to get together, given no supportive gay subcultural environment? All their expressions of mutual attraction are buried under dense layers of masculine code, to the point where, when Elio finally makes a fumbling, awkward attempt to tell Oliver how he feels, Oliver can only respond, “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
In other words, it takes Oliver and Elio practically forever to get to “Yes,” and by then they have little time left together. That time is therefore correspondingly precious and vividly lived, and we see why it’s so painful to Elio to have to let it go when Oliver’s summer internship is over. The problem with the film lies largely with the fact that it’s trying to depict very internal processes in a very external visual medium. The audience ends up waiting a long time for something – anything, damn it – to happen, beyond longing glances, tossing-and-turning summer nights. It doesn’t help that the female characters are barely developed at all, or that Elio cynically exploits the interest of a young woman named Marzia (Esther Garrel) as a way of trying to provoke jealousy in Oliver.
There are hints scattered like breadcrumbs throughout Call Me by Your Name – notably a scene in which Elio’s quadrilingual mother is reading aloud a passage in a French courtly romance novel, translating as she goes from a German edition – that barriers to human communication are indeed an essential theme of this film. But to deduce that Guadagnino and Ivory are suggesting that men, even gay men, need women in their world to act as verbal facilitators seems a bit of a stretch. What we have here is more of a hothouse drama of youthful torment and forbidden love newly discovered – a Bildungsroman, Italian-style. Such movies have every right to exist; French directors have been notably great at them. This viewer, for one, would have preferred a bit more plot.