When it comes to LGBT focused feature films, anybody invested in the genre will know that, in terms of quality, the phrase ‘slim pickings’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Sure, Moonlight grabbed Best Picture at the start of the year and the likes of Carol and Blue Is The Warmest Colour have made mainstream impacts in the recent past, but you know there is something of a problem when you still have to go back more than ten years to something like Brokeback Mountain to have an interesting discussion. Would 2017’s Call Me By Your Name be a much needed addition to the damningly small club?
Based on a 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, the film tells the story of Elio (Timothee Chalamet) a 17 year old who embarks on a passionate love affair with Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older man who has travelled to Italy to spend the summer in Elio’s family holiday villa to intern for his academic father. An unapologetic slow burn, the narrative unfolds in a fairly formulaic but rather hypnotic way from initial knowing glances to admissions of feelings to full blown secret romance, and although I can absolutely see why many critics are raving about the film, from a personal perspective my feelings are somewhat more mixed.
I’ll start with the positives. Set in the 1980s, the film boasts a certain kind of aesthetic that appeals to the nostalgia in me. From the period music to the period props and costumes, there is something effortlessly cool and charming about the story’s universe. What is also refreshing to see is that, even though the central romance is one that could be described as age inappropriate (but not illegal), the factor of the protagonist’s ages are of very little concern to the central story. The film chooses instead to focus on the chemistry and deep passion that the characters share and grow for one another, and it feels very mature as a result, ignoring the obvious themes in favour of others.
What I personally found to be less charming, however, was the aura and sense of complete and utter privilege that is at the heart of every key character in the picture. Elio and his family are all incredibly intelligent, well read, rich, beautiful people, summering in Italy and fluent in upwards of three foreign languages. They are joined by Oliver, another incredibly intelligent, well read, beautiful individual, and over the course of academic banter and lane swimming in a private pool, they proceed to fall in love. All whilst a maid hurries around preparing meals and laundering clothes. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need struggle or adversity the likes of Moonlight or Brokeback Mountain to invest in such a romance, but in the same way that something like Sideways once grated on me, so did the atmosphere of Call Me By Your Name for its two hour plus running time.
What must be highlighted, however, is the genuinely poignant and affecting ending of the picture. The final third is almost a short film all of its own, a 40 minute masterpiece that displays both the pleasure and inevitable pain of a coming of age romantic experience like this, complete with a much more refreshing take on the classic ‘parental reaction’ plot point, including a speech that is arguably one of the best, most understanding and most raw passages of dialogue in the entire genre.
As the teenage Elio, Timothee Chalamet is pretty much perfect. Chalamet captures the essence of sexual awakening, sexual confusion and sexual veracity in a refreshingly mature way. His performance doesn’t fall in the stereotype of a young tortured soul, struggling to come to terms with his feelings, but more so as an intelligent young man who is excited to experiment in all of the ways that his body is telling him to. As Oliver, Armie Hammer isn’t tasked with showcasing quite as much depth of character, but as the somewhat aloof adonis of Elio’s desire, he certainly hits the spot. Together, the two share a palpable chemistry, with the climactic (pun intended) romantic moments between them truly making the screen sizzle with passion.
The most noteworthy supporting performance, without a doubt, is provided by Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father Lyle. The definition of both an enlightened, intelligent academic and a loving, caring, understanding father, the passage of powerful, poignant dialogue about which I spoke previously is entrusted to Stuhlbarg, and he absolutely hits it out of the park with a sincerity and presence that left more than a few in my screening wiping away a tear.
Overall, Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful film, and one that certainly deserves its place in the pantheon of modern LGBT greats. Whilst I couldn’t fully connect with the levels of privilege on screen, the charisma of the leads and the thematic intention of the story and filmmakers shone through. Unabashedly ponderous at times, but worth it for the masterful final third.