Call Me By Your Name (Movie) screenplay by James Ivory; based on the book by André
Aciman; directed by Luca Guadagnino; starring Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael
Stuhlbarg, Amina Casar, Esther Garrel
The novel, Call Me by Your Name, was so good (reviewed on DD page "Spring Reading 2013"), that I had to see
this movie, even though it appeared that the reviews weren’t exactly raves.
It’s the story of seventeen-year-old Elio’s summer – circa 1980 – with his family at a villa somewhere
in Northern Italy. Elio’s dad’s a prof of some kind – a cultural archeologist, perhaps? – who invites
a younger academic to work with him each summer. The family is Jewish but it’s not entirely clear what nationality they
are. Let’s just say multi-lingual European. They speak French to themselves and friends, Italian with the neighbours
and help, and English with their visitors – all quite fluently.This summer, the visiting academic is Oliver, a thirty-ish
American man who happens to very good looking – a fact which is not lost on young Elio.
Warning: It’s almost impossible to say anything significant about this movie without revealing the main plot
point, given that hardly anything else happens in the movie. The big event is that Elio falls in love with Oliver. This is
apparently Elio’s first gay affair, although he’s also experimenting in amorous encounters with a young woman.
As you might expect of any movie connected with James Ivory – the scriptwriter in this case but best known for his
glorious movie collaborations with Ismail Merchant – this one’s gorgeous. Beautifully photographed, there are
the elegant old villa, the sunlit fields, rivers and bathing pools, the glistening foliage. When people aren’t dining
al fresco or smoking, they’re bicycling across the bucolic landscape and through the picturesque towns. Meanwhile, on
the soundtrack, there’s laughter wafting across the patio, constant twittering of birds, cattle lowing in the distance.
A lovely way for a moviegoer to spend a cold winter afternoon – like immersing yourself in a hot tub.
But nothing much is happening for the first two-thirds of the movie. If you haven’t read the book and you don’t
know what’s coming, there isn’t much to hold your interest. The host family regards Oliver with a certain skeptical
amusement; he’s a bit brash and overly confidant. And the relationship between him and Elio is kinda chippy. So
you’re wondering if maybe there’s some potential for drama there. If so, it’s minimally engaging.
Timothée Chalamet, however, is just right for the part of Elio. At one moment –
when flirting with a girl, for instance – he can be manly and assertive. The next moment he’s callow and unsure
of himself. Obviously, his sexuality has yet to be set in some sort of mould. You can see how he can be captured in a spell
by someone as impressive as Oliver (Armie Hammer). But when the love business does finally come, it seems too short-lived
to have the cataclysmic effect it had in the novel.
On the whole, then, the movie fails to deliver the novel’s emotional charge.
Perhaps the problem is that it's fundamentally impossible to convey the full impact Elio’s feelings and thoughts
on screen. He’ll do the occasional weird thing – like sticking his head inside Oliver’s empty swimming trunks --
but you need the first-person narration of the book to take you inside Elio. That's where the momentous event is
happening. It’s understandable that an impresssionable seventeen-year-old might fall for such a paragon of manhood without
any reason other than Oliver's beauty, but we need some better sense of the connection between the two of them.
Long before there's any acutal sex, a bit of play-fighting, of physical jostling, hints at what might lie deeper
but it doesn’t give us much to hang on to.
As a result, the emotional climax of the affair – when each lover chooses to call the other by his own name –
doesn’t deliver the erotic punch that it did in the novel. It feels like a whimsical quirk without much meaning. For
somewhat the same reason, the dad’s big speech near the end of the movie doesn’t have the impact it should have.
(With his dad played by Michael Stuhlbarg and his mother played by Amina Casar, Elio has about the best two parents
any kid in his situation could have.) The dad’s talk about the deep meaning of Elio’s friendship with Oliver sounds
a bit exaggerated. We really didn’t see much depth to it. Thanks, however, to Michael Stuhlbarg’s making the dad
a warm, empathetic person, his long speech – at least a page of text – is moving and impressive, rather than mawkish
and sententious as it might have sounded on the lips of a less gifted actor.