“Call Me by Your Name” Moves, Even As It Disturbs

Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

Based on the 2007 book of the same title – by author André Aciman (who plays a small role in its adaptation) – Call Me by Your Name tells the story of a romance set in the summer of 1983 against a backdrop of lush, halcyon Italian landscapes. The lovers in question are 17-year-old Elio – of Italian, French and American heritage – and 24-year-old Oliver – all American – the graduate student who arrives to work with Elio’s academic father at the estate he shares with Elio’s mother (which she inherited). Both men appear straight, at first, and have no problem attracting members of the opposite sex, but soon their strong mutual attraction sends them tumbling into an all-consuming passionate affair. Beautifully photographed and movingly performed, Call Me by Your Name is not without some fraught narrative issues, though its strengths make it well worth seeing.

Italian Director Luca Guadagnino is no stranger to passion. Indeed, heightened emotions are his wheelhouse, at least as witnessed by his last two features, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash (the only two I’d seen previously). Here, he plays it coy, at first, holding back on the melodrama and allowing his two fine leads – Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird), as Elio, and Armie Hammer (Free Fire), as Oliver – to develop their rapport through gentle glances and easygoing repartee. When they finally consummate their relationship, Guadagnino continues to show restraint, cutting away from their intimate moments and returning to linger on their happy, post-coital expressions. All the while, the lives of those around them progress on their own trajectories, sometimes colliding with theirs, always in motion. It’s a fully realized world, inclusive of all the characters.

Still, I was troubled by the age gap between the men, particularly since Hammer looks far older than the character he plays, and Chalamet far younger. There is a built-in power imbalance in how they meet – the one an experienced man-of-the-world, the other a boy on the cusp of manhood – that gives me pause in celebrating what is otherwise a lovely coming-of-age, coming-out tale. Certainly, Guadagnino presents the story in nothing but the most reverential terms (though I am hardly  the only one to notice, and discuss, the problem), but I could not shake the unease I felt at the potentially predatory set-up. Yes, the age of consent in Italy is far younger than it is in most of the United States, so nothing legally improper happens on screen, but given our current national conversation about older men preying on younger women (thank you, Roy Moore!) – well, all women (and some men) – I suspect there may be others who feel some of what I did.

Thankfully, both Chalamet and Hammer deliver such fine-tuned, heartfelt performances that we are mostly just swept up in their ardor. They are not alone, joined by such other terrific actors as Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water), as Elio’s dad; Esther Garrel (L’astragale) as a young woman whom Elio initially pursues; and Amira Casar (Planetarium), as Elio’s mom. Stuhlbarg, especially, is given a juicy supporting role, though I wish his final speech to his son – lovingly supportive of the relationship with Oliver – were shorter and less expositional. It’s a moment where Guadagnino and his screenwriter, James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory fame), lose control of their heretofore masterful self-control. But the movie truly belongs to Chalamet and Hammer, the former’s face the last thing we see, in close-up, as the movie ends with his final stare into a roaring fireplace, devastated by the knowledge that summer is over, and life must go on. Flawed and troubling in places though it may be, Call Me by Your Name is still a powerful cinematic experience.

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