Armie Hammer, Drama, First love, Italy, Literary adaptation, Lombardy, Luca Guadagnino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Review, Romance, Timothée Chalamet
D: Luca Guadagnino / 132m
Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi
In this beautifully shot, written, directed, and acted adaptation of the novel by André Aciman, the setting is Northern Italy in the summer of 1983. Oliver (Hammer), a graduate student of archaeology and Greco-Roman culture arrives at the home of Professor Perlman (Stuhlbarg) and his family – wife Annella (Casar) and son Elio (Chalamet) – to assist the professor for six weeks with his academic paperwork. Oliver is outgoing, confident and charming, and soon wins over everyone except for Elio. Elio is Oliver’s polar opposite: reserved, insular, unsure of himself, and envious of Oliver’s ebullient nature. But Elio finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Oliver, something that both frightens and excites him. Lacking in any kind of sexual experience at seventeen, and torn between his burgeoning feelings for Oliver as well as the attentions of Marzie (Garrel), a close friend, Elio tries to navigate the treacherous waters of first love, and the realities inherent in accepting feelings and emotions that are completely overwhelming.
A project that has been in development since the movie’s main producers, Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman, saw an early galley of Aciman’s novel (his first) back in 2007, Call Me by Your Name is perhaps one of the most visually and emotionally ravishing movies of the year – or indeed any year. Shot in a variety of locations around Crema in Lombardy, this is a beautiful movie to watch, perfectly capturing the hazy, laidback existence of the Perlman family and their idyllic, rural home, and constantly providing the viewer with some absolutely magnificent imagery. Director Luca Guadagnino, in collaboration with DoP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, has made a movie that is almost painterly in its design and execution. Shots are so perfectly framed that the amount of information in any given scene is breathtaking. With such a wealth of detail on offer, it’s a triumph of cinematography yes, but also of production design, and art and set decoration.
But this movie isn’t just about the world that it so richly creates. It’s an examination of the joys and cruelties associated with first love, that horrible wonderful period in a person’s life when the world seems turned upside down and all the surety and confidence they’ve accrued counts for nothing in the face of having to let down their defences and hope their hopes and feelings aren’t rejected wholesale. The movie addresses this directly in a scene where Annella reads from a German translation of Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptaméron, where the question is asked, “Is it better to speak or to die?” This is the dilemma Elio faces: does he reveal his feelings to Oliver, or does he remain silent and in doing so forgo the relationship he seeks. It’s a familiar plight, and one that the movie treats with an appropriate sympathy and sense of consideration. Elio’s uncertainty facilitates a kind of dance between the pair as they circle around each other, both providing hints for the other and neither of them trusting their instincts far enough to take that first, all-important step.
Guadagnino ensures that the nature of this dance and the intricacy of its turns and swirls is played out in contrast to Elio’s relationship with Marzie, which is just as hesitant and just as confusing for Elio as his feelings for Oliver. Faced with opposing emotions and unable to reconcile them, Elio is equally unable to take responsibility for them. The script – a remarkable achievement courtesy of James Ivory – has him do what any confused and horny teenager would do, and indulge his desires wherever and however they might appear. It doesn’t lessen his sense of ambiguity about his sexuality, or his need for Oliver, but it does lead him to make some questionable decisions, and while there are moments where he appears unable to overcome his own culpability, the fact that his behaviour is so easily recognisable and understandable, allows the viewer to remain hopeful that things will work out for him.
It helps that Ivory’s script and Guadagnino’s direction don’t pass judgment on any of the characters, and instead provides them with a cinematic safe haven for their troubles to play out. It’s also refreshing that the movie focuses on a gay relationship that runs its course – as inevitably it must do, Oliver is only there for six weeks – and there’s no threat or peril attached, either from Elio’s parents or any of the locals (though a handful of scenes set in Bergamo where Elio and Oliver spend some time together give the impression that something bad will happen at some point). It’s worth noting that this is a movie where prejudice isn’t allowed to raise its unwelcome head at any time, and though you could argue that this doesn’t sound entirely realistic given the period, it’s still encouraging to have that particular hoary old plot device ignored completely. The dynamic between Elio and Oliver is what’s important, and once Elio has made his choice to either speak or die, the movie rightly focuses on them and the fledgling steps they take in their relationship.
All of this, though, would be for nothing if it weren’t for the two mesmerising performances given by Hammer and Chalamet. For Hammer this is a major step up in his career, his portrayal of the apparently worldly-wise Oliver strengthened by his ability to show the character’s own insecurities and vulnerable side. There’s a scene where Oliver begins to have doubts about the longevity of his relationship with Elio, and the way in which Hammer expresses this uncertainty pulls at the heartstrings in a way that’s completely unexpected. Chalamet is equally as impressive as Elio, the camera lingering on him for long stretches, catching each fleeting emotion and sharply expressed moment of self-awareness. For Chalamet, the key scene is one that involves a peach, and it’s thanks to his skill as an actor that the scene works as incredibly well as it does; in the hands of some movie makers and actors, it would have killed the movie stone dead. Together, both actors support and encourage each other in their scenes, and the freedom they exhibit is hugely impressive. Again, without them, all the good work achieved in other areas would be for naught, and this would be a movie about which we would all be saying, “Ah well, good try.” That we’re not is a triumph for all concerned.
Rating: 9/10 – a superb adaptation of Aciman’s novel that is languid in pace yet deeply emotional in tone, Call Me by Your Name is also an amazingly affecting movie that grips like a thriller and which presents its characters as average human beings struggling with common human problems, but particularly, how to commit to someone else wholeheartedly; beautifully made on all levels, this is Guadagnino’s best movie yet, and one that resonates with, and rewards and reassures viewers by providing recognisable characters that we can all identify and sympathise with – because we’ve all been there ourselves.
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