Mark Reviews Movies

Call Me by Your Name


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and some language)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 11/24/17 (limited); 12/15/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 14, 2017

"We can't talk about those kinds of things," the visitor says. In that moment, we're not entirely certain what "those kinds of things" are, but deep down, we also know. More importantly, it's obvious that Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) know what they're talking about without saying a word.

There's a lot of the unspoken in Call Me by Your Name, a perceptive film about lust, jealousy, uncertainty, repression, and, maybe, love. It's a film that wisely avoids such specific labels about the true nature of its central relationship, because it sees that bond as something wholly unique to these two characters, who meet by chance and aren't expecting what will come out of that fateful connection.

It's the summer of 1983, somewhere in northern Italy. Elio is the son of a university professor, who invites a doctoral student to his villa every summer to help with research. This year, the visitor is Oliver, an American with a sharp mind (The professor tests him with some etymology, just to make sure) and a flippant attitude.

At first, Elio doesn't think too much of Oliver. There's his avoidance of dinner with his host family on the night of his arrival. There's the clumsy way he cracks a hardboiled egg and his apparently insatiable appetite ("If I have another, I'll have a third," he jokes, "and by the end of the summer, you'll be wheeling me out of here"). It's the way he dances with a local woman, his body so close and his hands moving up and down her back, and it's how he dances by himself, as if there's no one else in the world, when his favorite song starts playing. There's the arrogant way he bids farewell with a lazy pronouncement of "Later."

Elio's father (played by Michael Stuhlbag) says that his son will come to like Oliver by the end of the summer. Elio responds, "What if I end up hating him?"

The 17-year-old Elio is pretty sharp, too. He spends his days reading, transcribing music, and playing the guitar or the piano. He knows Bach, and he's clever enough to change his style of playing a single piece multiple times. Is he trying to ignore Oliver, who just wants to hear the piece played as it was written, with that little trick, or is he showing off?

This doesn't have to be a choice. That's the true insight of James Ivory's screenplay (based on André Aciman's novel), which sees these characters as walking, talking, and silent contradictions. Elio is smart and a little arrogant himself, yes, but he's also rather shy in certain situations. Oliver may be a grown man of an indeterminate age (somewhere between his mid 20s and early 30s), but he might as well be closer to Elio's age in spirit. What we learn by the end of the film is that we really can't know what's in the hearts of these characters. By the time Oliver's visit inevitably comes to its end, they say and do so many things that their hearts and minds seem transparent, but there are also many important things left unsaid. The film's final scenes solidify one character's heart and leave the other's a mystery that likely will never be solved.

There's the age difference, of course, which could account for a lot of this. As cool and distant as Elio may seem, that's to be expected of a teenager. Chalamet's performance is revelatory in how he strikes the balance between youthful indifference and the depth of Elio's confused feelings, as well as how that apathy might be just a show that he puts on to fit in with those around him. We don't know when Elio's feelings toward Oliver shift. They may never shift, and his pronouncements of disliking the stranger who has taken over his bedroom for the summer are just part of the act. After all, there are his parents about whom to worry, and there's a girl about his age named Marzia (Esther Garrel) who's playing her own little game of showing interest—but not too much—with him (It's a little cruel how Elio treats her, and the film can only reconcile it by ultimately placing the burden of that reconciliation on her).

Then there's Oliver. Is it possible for an actor to give a great performance even when he has been miscast? Hammer plays Oliver with the right level of natural appeal, a frivolous sense of loyalty, and an air of mystery that makes him more of an object than a person. His instincts in the role are spot on, yet Hammer's age and physicality transform the character's relationship with the younger Elio into something that it is, apparently, not supposed to be. There's such a distinction in age and build between him and Chalamet that the age difference becomes an issue.

It's clear that we're supposed to see these two as equals, if not in age then, at least, in personality and mentality. Hammer's appearance adds an unfortunate inequality in the power dynamic, though. Director Luca Guadagnino seems to recognize this fact, or at least he does when it comes to the film's depiction of Elio and Oliver's sexual intimacy. The filmmaker is forthright in the playfulness between the two, but when things between them intensify, he keeps his distance.

Those distancing elements are enough to keep Call Me by Your Name from reaching the emotional levels for which it clearly strives. As an intellectually minded and closely observed study of two people who are both perfect and wrong for each other, though, the film's perceptiveness ultimately shines through.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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