There are so many sublime moments contained within Luca Guadagnino's acclaimed and sure to be Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name that it's more than a little bit of a shame that the film never quite lives into the courage that it professes to desire.
Call Me By Your Name takes place in 1983 in the northern Italian countryside that is so magnificently idyllic that it would seem practically impossible to not fall in love in such a setting. The film centers around the initially resistant turned passionate romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver is a graduate student who has arrived for a summer internship with Elio's father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of Greco-Roman antiquities, while Elio is spending the summer with his parents in their almost unbelievably gorgeous 17th century villa.
If you know Guadagnino's films, such as I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, then you already know that Guadagnino is less concerned with narrative structure and more concerned, far more concerned, with the immersive experience of being human. This has, at times, worked quite wondrously such as with I Am Love, a film that The Independent Critic recognized as one of the year's best upon its release. However, other times, such as is the case here, Guadagnino's approach only occasionally hits the mark, such as in the latter scenes in this film, while much of the film is spent being immersed in a world that seems to exist with lesser meaning than is warranted. The characters of Elio and Oliver, for existence, aren't given the depth that is so prevalent in Andre Aciman's source material, a novel that goes beyond the cat-and-mouse game that is evident on the surface but devoid of anything more substantial.
It is interesting to note that director Paul Thomas Anderson has been quoted as proclaiming Call Me By Your Name as his favorite film of 2017, an interesting observation given that Anderson's own film, Phantom Thread, tackles the world of relationships in a vastly superior fashion.
Of course, the early scenes within Call Me By Your Name profess that the film is about such surfaces but the images presented promises otherwise. The story that unfolds never quite lives up to that promise.
This is not to say that Call Me By Your Name is a bad film. Indeed, such a statement from any film journalist should be met with derisive laughter. However, neither is it the cinematic perfection that some are loudly proclaiming it to be. To be sure, Timothée Chalamet gives an extraordinary performance here, a truly breakthrough one, and it's possibly even arguable that Armie Hammer, whose work I've never particularly been a fan of, has given the performance of his career here. Call Me By Your Name, however, never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be and never quite becomes what it could have been. It's a good film that could have been and should have been a great film.
We occasionally get evidence of just how great a film Call Me By Your Name might have been, scenes that unfold rather suddenly and enthrall us with their intimacy. When Chalamet and Hammer share a space, there's a sensuality that fills the screen in ways that are quiet yet communicate volumes. Yet, far too often it seems that Guadagnino is content to use broad shots rather than closing in and allowing us to make emotional and physical contact.
At times, it seems that we get close but Guadagnino pulls us back. I suppose it is possible that is his choice, yet it is a frustrating choice that makes one wonder if we are watching a story that is more about fear than love. Both Chalamet and Stuhlbarg have had exceptional years with multiple strong cinematic performances for each of them, while Hammer has once again lived into his promise in a major way.
It is certainly understandable why so many have been taken by Call Me By Your Name as Guadagnino has crafted a film that can be appreciated by sight alone and will envelope you like few film experiences have this year. While one might wish that Guadagnino had more fully brought James Ivory's bold and vivid script to life, even with my modest reservations Call Me By Your Name remains one of 2017's most engaging and loving films.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic