Friday, February 2, 2018

Call Me By Your Name: An incandescent depiction of love

Call Me By Your Name(2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for nudity, frank sexual content and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.2.18

One cannot imagine more perfect circumstances under which to fall in love.

Or a more lyrical and sensitive depiction of same.

Meals at the Perlman home invariably take place outside, surrounded by the estate's lush
orchards: genial gatherings during which Professor Perlman and his wife (Michael
Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar, left) make newcomer Oliver (Armie Hammer, second from
right) feel at home, while their teenage son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) keeps his
thoughts to himself.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s sweetly poignant Call Me by Your Name captures the jokey, nervous, wary and (ultimately) full-throttle rush of falling in love: not of first love, necessarily, but rather of true love. The bond that proves life-changing: the one that we instinctively know, deep down, will be remembered — savored — forever, regardless of how long it lasts.

Credibly conveying this flurry of complex emotions on the big screen isn’t easy, because — in real life — so much of such intimate surrender is private, and wordless. Movies are great when it comes to playful eroticism or naked lust, but attempts to convey genuine passion — and goodness, such attempts are legion — too often are cluttered with relentless (and unnecessary) dialog.

Guadagnino and scripter James Ivory understood this, and deftly rose to the challenge of adapting André Aciman’s 2007 novel. Ivory just collected a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his efforts.

The setting is Northern Italy; the year is 1983, before computers and Smart phones would become ubiquitous thieves of shared personal time. Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a distinguished scholar in the field of Greco-Roman culture, traditionally spends summers with his wife, Annella (Amira Casar), and their son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), in the family’s 17th century villa.

It’s a long, lazy busman’s holiday of sorts, with research interrupted frequently by biking, outdoor sports, swims in the nearby lake, and languid, wine-fueled meals. Seventeen-year-old Elio, an accomplished pianist, takes after his father; the boy reads voraciously, transcribes music, and flirts with the numerous local girls, most notably Marzia (Esther Garrel). Clothing is sparse; sex is in the air.

The villa is surrounded by trees, all laden with fruit as ripe as the lithe young bodies.

As is his custom, Perlman invites a graduate student to share his research during a six-week sojourn. This summer’s arrival is 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is pursuing his doctorate.

Oliver is hip, flip and immediately — confidently — at ease in these new surroundings. Elio, amused and annoyed by this brash newcomer, manifests teenage aloofness and mild condescension. Oliver, in turn, responds with slightly mocking indifference.

Or maybe something else is going on.

A hand on a shoulder. A passing brush of skin against skin.

It’s impossible to ignore the implications, particularly against such beguiling surroundings, and in a country famed for its explicitly sculpted icons of male and female splendor: statuary that is a major portion of Perlman’s research focus.

Elio appears comfortably bisexual, albeit (apparently) not yet having had an opportunity to indulge the gay half of his equation. But interest and curiosity are present, and he senses a kindred spirit in Oliver; their harmony also includes a laissez-faire attitude toward their shared Jewish heritage.

With the impatience of youth, Elio becomes an aggressor: almost hilarious in his clumsy, blatant eagerness. At the same time, Chalamet radiates uncertainty and a soupçon of confusion. Guadagnino has coaxed a marvelously complex and layered performance from the young actor; it’s captivating to watch Elio explore, struggle and finally surrender to his emotions.

No surprise at all, that Chalamet also has been nominated for an Oscar.

Oliver is circumspect, and with good reason; being perceived as a significantly older predator could ruin his professional career, biological desire notwithstanding. But Elio is so obvious, even around his parents — who seem to tolerate such behavior — that Oliver can’t help being torn. Resist ... or succumb?

Hammer is perfectly cast as an all-American golden boy who’s completely comfortable in his own skin: the sort of guy for whom the seas part, and who never has wanted for anything, including bedroom companionship. But Oliver also is all-business, as the situation demands; he’s whip-smart and cheerfully eager to help when Perlman beckons.

Hammer’s performance is captivating, particularly when Oliver slides — in the blink of an eye — from doctoral discussions to impish playfulness. It’s nice to see the actor sink his thespic teeth into a similarly subtle and complex part, after the popcorn roles that defined so much of his earlier career. (Mirror, Mirror, The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. leap to mind.)

The film slides into precarious territory as nature takes its course; the slightest misstep by Guadagnino, Ivory or editor Walter Fasano, and the result would look and/or sound smarmy, exploitative or simply wrong. But Guadagnino’s touch is sure, and Ivory’s dialog is appropriately spare and note-perfect; we don’t realize, until after the film concludes, how much time is spent wordlessly. The actors convey a great deal with telling expressions, stance and languid movements.

Stuhlbarg is equally fine. At first blush, Perlman seems a jovial host and enthusiastic teacher: the perceptive instructor we’d all love to have. But his expressions and moments of thoughtful silence also speak volumes; we get a sense that Perlman mentally catalogs everything, and misses nothing.

Stuhlbarg has a great moment toward the story’s conclusion: a soliloquy of sorts, with Chalamet a wholly absorbed listener. It’s one of those sublime scenes that deserves to live forever in cinematic history.

Indeed, the parent/child dynamic between Perlman, his wife and Elio is warmly loving, mutually affectionate and far more candid than usual. One could argue that it’s too perfect — are any parents so trusting and watchfully indulgent? — but, again, the performances and Ivory’s finely tuned script ring true.

Casar isn’t granted much of a speaking role, which is a shame; Annella obviously is an intelligent and perceptive woman. It would have been nice to gain access to more of her personality, perhaps via private conversations with her husband.

Garrel deftly sketches Marzia as a longtime friend — she and Elio likely have spent a lot of time together each summer, as they’ve grown up — who clearly wishes to become his lover; the desire is plain on her face. Her growing realization, that she’s destined to remain second best, climaxes with a heartbreaking scene.

Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s lush cinematography makes the setting deliciously, luxuriously inviting, establishing the various outdoor tableaus in a manner that heightens their sun-dappled sensuality. Interior shots are equally interesting, most particularly the manner in which he frames an erotic encounter between Elio and Marzia, in a dark and dusty attic.

Mukdeeprom also is fond of shots that focus on foreground, while leaving background figures slightly blurred: often used to emphasize a silently thoughtful or intense moment involving two characters.

It’s nice to see quietly intimate dramas such as this and Lady Bird pick up Best Picture nominations — as was the case last year, with Lion and Manchester by the Sea — although their chances seem unlikely. Regardless, it’s a welcome reminder that audiences exist for something other than superheroes, dumb comedies, space operas and gun-laden action flicks.


  1. Great review, Derrick. Just saw it tonight. Loved it, esp the parents/kid relationship. You nailed the qualities I most loved in the movie.

  2. I just watched this movie on Starz. Your review is priceless and perfect. Loved this comment:
    Stuhlbarg has a great moment toward the story’s conclusion: a soliloquy of sorts, with Chalamet a wholly absorbed listener. It’s one of those sublime scenes that deserves to live forever in cinematic history.