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‘Call Me by Your Name’ review

| Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Northern Italy in the summer of 1983, a teenage prodigy transcribing classical music, a doctoral student studying sculpture and Heraclitus, late night swims in the ocean, excursions to Rome, an apricot orchard, too much time to fill and too little to fill it with. It sounds like a recipe for apathy, weariness and unconcern — anything but conflict. But director Luca Guadagnino’s recently released film “Call Me by Your Name” takes the seemingly humdrum list above and creates its own conflict, its own confrontation. It creates something out of nothing, so effortlessly that if you saw that same list you would know that something vital is missing.

“Call Me by Your Name” is set in the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy, it features a teenage prodigy named Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and a doctoral student living with Elio’s family, Oliver (Armie Hammer). The film, for the most part, revolves around Elio and Oliver’s everyday happenings — swimming, going on bike rides, transcribing music or novels and occasionally going into town. It’s a film that, on its surface, isn’t about much. But in between their bike rides and nightly swims, their convoluted, forbidden relationship fills the cracks with excitement and uncertainty. They make themselves vulnerable, they allow themselves to fall in love with each other and for a brief moment, they both experience their first real love.

The inclusion of a love affair in the plot, however, does not necessitate a film being enjoyable and well done. This film’s power comes from the way director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory depict Elio and Oliver’s covert relationship. Any homosexual love story set only a few decades in the past is bound to be complicated and forbidden. The film portrays this hesitancy from both Oliver and Elio to enter into their relationship through brilliant subtleties in the first half. It’s not a kiss on the cheek, it’s a passing grab of the shoulder; it’s not an explicit “I love you,” it’s an “I know so little about the things that matter;” and it’s not breaking up with your girlfriend for your new lover, it’s keeping them and hoping they don’t find out.

In depicting secrecy, however, Guadagnino and Ivory in no way belittle or caricature Oliver and Elio’s relationship to one defined solely by its homosexuality. They treat it as they would any love story. The scenes building up to the revelation of their feelings and first kiss are in no way off-putting or abnormal; they’re treated no differently from any other film about love. Of course, some things are naturally different since homosexuality was looked down upon and civil union between two men was illegal in 1980s Italy, but these differences are a result of filmmakers creating a historically accurate film. It certainly would have been nice to set the film in the more tolerant 2017 instead of 1983, but so much of the ambiance, tone and feel of this film is dependent on its temporal setting — it would take away far more than it would give to change the summer it took place.

It would be an injustice to attribute the positives of the film solely to the director and screenwriter. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Egyptian-American author Andre Aciman, and in many ways, the novel provides much more depth than the film does. The novel is told from Elio’s point of view and revolves around his hidden obsessions and overthinking of every action Oliver makes. With the film’s departure from this first-person narration, it loses much of its depth, but Guadagnino, Chalamet and Hammer all do a noble job in trying to externalize the — at times — rampant obsession that Elio feels for Oliver.

Although much of the film’s best qualities are derived from Aciman’s novel, it also generates the majority of the film’s faults. Aciman’s novel is replete with elevated language that almost sounds like poetry. All of the questions they ask and the answers they give are incredibly calculated and something no ordinary person, even a piano prodigy or doctorate student, would come up with on the spot. When Timothee Chalamet’s character says something incredibly profound like “Is it better to love or to die?” it sounds off-putting and forced — like something a Shakespearian bard would say, not a 1980s teenager. The only actor who coherently and believably translates Aciman’s dialogue to the screen is Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), most notably in his “Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot” monologue. It’s not incredibly distracting, but when elevated dialogue is used often in the film’s most intense scenes, it can get slightly cumbersome.

The awkwardness of dialogue aside, “Call Me by Your Name” is incredibly enjoyable. It’s an unconventional love story told in a mesmerizing and unconventional way. Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer both wow in their leading roles and Luca Guadagnino makes a name for himself with his often brilliant directing. It’s a film that is deserving of all the award nominations it has gotten, but I’m not quite sure if it is deserving of the wins its fans desire.

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