Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name.
Call Me By Your Name is a sensual and beautiful film with deep flaws in its premise.
Call Me By Your Name is a maddeningly frustrating movie. It has gorgeous imagery, well crafted characters, excellent performances, and a director who is almost too in control of every nuance of the film. It is also ponderously paced, self-indulgent in its artistry, and underpinned by ideas that are deeply disturbing. This film made me smile and want to walk out in equal measures. Director Luca Guadignino has crafted a film that begs to be discussed, but that is not actually a recommendation.
Call Me By Your Name (2017).
Elio is a brilliant but bored teenager accompanying his bookish parents on a summer trip to Italy. His difficulties with his budding sexuality are compounded by Oliver, a handsome research assistant helping Elio’s father’s exploration of Greek antiquities. Torn between attraction and revulsion, Elio cannot seem to avoid being drawn in by the brash young American.
Call Me By Your Name is a tightly controlled piece of art. Everything is made to serve Guadignino’s vision. The visuals are sumptuous and evocative, and you get a deep sense of setting and time period. The characters are interesting and complex, and Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer give excellent performances as Elio and Oliver. The cinematography mirrors the plot and characters is ways I’ve rarely seen, creating layers of context and subtext with each shot and cut. The score is immaculate and well tailored. Very few films can boast of being such polished artifacts.
Strictly on the level of craft, I did have several problems with this film. The director has his hands so firmly upon the reigns that it can feel stifling in places, and downright mean spirited in others. Several jump cuts seem solely intended to jar the audience, like a trainer pulling hard upon a leash. Sound cues function in much the same way at times. The film also dabbles in abstraction in isolated and odd moments. Bizarre images, unfocused shots, and even projection artifacts jump out at you with little rhyme or reason. Once again, I felt that the director was harshly asserting his control over the audience and pointedly reminding you that this is HIS film, so pay attention!
The odd cuts and jumps also serves to underscore the pace of the film, which can cycle from rapid to ponderous. It really does mirror the “courtship” of Elio by Oliver, who is often cruel in the way he entices and then rejects the youth. We’re led down a narrative path that then pulls back and frustrates our anticipation as an audience. In the final 30 minutes, the film gives up the pretense of subtlety after what feels like the proper end of the narrative in order to lecture us both figuratively and quite literally about what the drama has all meant.
*Things are going to get ethical and philosophical from here on out, and involve plot spoilers. If you just want to know how Call Me By Your Name is as a film, I think I’ve covered that succinctly and we can part ways here.*
Better Role Models.
I found this film deeply upsetting. Before anyone jumps to conclusions and straw men arguments, it is not because of the same sex relationship at the heart of the drama. All things being equal, this film would be an excellent presentation of sexuality between two men that is sensual, beautiful, and engaging; the problem with the film is that not all things are equal, not by a long shot. At the end of the day, you have to reckon with the fact that Oliver is a grown man who is romancing an underage child, and reinforcing toxic masculine tropes in the process.
Age Matters. Oliver is a full grown man. The novel says he’s 24, but from what little we learn of him and how he is presented, I would have guessed he was in his later twenties. His age is never stated in the film, which contrasts to how Elio is specifically referred to as 17 (the same as in the novel.) From how he is presented, I would have guessed 15. We see him shaving non-existent whiskers, he carries himself like a young teen, and he physically hangs on Oliver in the puppy dog manner of a first crush. This is not a close match in term of age and, importantly, maturity. There is a chasm of social, emotional, psychological and legal differences between people of those ages in real life, and the film barely pays lip service to that while still portraying their relationship as a sensual courtship instead of what it really is: sexual predation. It doesn’t matter that 14 is the age of consent in Italy, these characters are miles away from each other in terms of their understanding of consent.
Abuse. If you believe that age is arbitrary and that Oliver is doing no wrong, the character disagrees. He struggles against his attraction to Elio, and states that it is wrong. Part of this is due to internalized societal stigma against same sex relationships in the setting of the film, but it is also explicitly stated to be about age and/or maturity. Oliver’s moral wrangling fuels the cruel cycle of pushing and pulling Elio. Unfortunately, that is not the only explanation for his cruelty. In this film’s world, romance is cruel and objectifying. Both Elio and Oliver have female admirers who they lead on whenever they cannot pursue each other. Elio especially uses the women around him as emotional blackmail to get Oliver’s attention. Elio’s father commiserates that he wishes he could have followed his urges to experiment sexually when he was young and that he had to settle for a less passionate relationship, heavily implying that he is in a passionless marriage with Elio’s mother, who therefore becomes another victim that exists solely to be a tool for her husband’s use.
Passion Trumps All? The central premise of all of the despicable “romantic” ethics in this film is that male passion justifies everything. Elio is filled with unrequited yearning for Oliver, so he can be absolved of using Marzia as essentially a sex toy. The film fully absolves him, as Marzia comes to him after he’s discarded her and makes up with HIM. Elio literally makes love to an inanimate object when he can’t have Oliver, reducing his sex partners to mere things to accept his urges. Likewise, when Oliver finally gets Elio he physically shrugs away his female companion. His moral qualms about Elio being a suitable partner practically vanish once they have sex. Passion has cleared away the grey area: if the loins say it must be so, then it damn well will be so. Elio’s father (who not only knew about a 24 year old guest in his house fucking his 17 year old son, but tacitly encouraged it with knowing winks and coy suggestions) gives a final sermon to his son about how sublime his relationship with Oliver was and how passion like that must be pursued like a once in a lifetime blessing from the heavens.
Because I found the central ideas informing this film to be abhorrent, I have a hard time recommending it despite the many excellent elements in it. The characters were engaging and Chalamet and Hammer gave profound performances as two characters who I wound up finding ethically repellent. The film is beautiful and sensual and engaging, except for where it is being degrading. I can appreciate the care and attention to artistic detail that went into creating a story that had me wholly invested until I could no longer tolerate the monstrous premises that underpin it. The speech Elio’s father gives stood as a summation of the whole film in my mind: a stirring and achingly beautiful construction, delivered with pathos, that lasted way too long and was elegizing a fundamentally flawed relationship founded upon selfishness.