Written by: James Ivory, Directed by: Luca Guadagnino, based on a novel by André Aciman
Call Me By Your Name is the story of a budding romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and his archaeologist father’s live-in grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Hammer, pitched this acclaimed movie by arguing it’s “a rare same-sex love story where no one gets AIDS, no one has their personal life destroyed and no one gets lynched.”. As such, its an important cinematic innovation: destroying heteronormativity, by definition, means creating “normal” non-heterocentric stories. As a result of its low key plot, however, Call Me By Your Name, challenges its viewers to find other (non-narrative based) reasons to engage with it. For some, that will mean relating to the suppressed romantic yearnings of Elio and Oliver.
For others, enjoying this slow placed film requires appreciation for its aesthetic. For many this will not be challenge. As Pedro Almodóvar put it “Everything is beautiful, charming, and desirable in this movie: The boys, the girls, the breakfasts, the fruit, the cigarettes, the reservoirs, the bicycles, the open-air dancing, the 80s, the doubts and the devotion of the protagonists, the sincerity of all the characters, the relationship with their parents.” For me, viewing Call Be Your Name, however, was a lesson in how fragile and subjective the concept of cinematic excellence truly is. Movies with simple story lines can be amongst the greatest. In finding beautiful shots and compelling drama in everyday life, these movies strike the perfect balance between providing an escape from and shedding new light on our realities. That said, the ability of these films to connect with their viewers is limited by precisely what comes into their cinematography. The simple plot of Paterson, for example, featured creative writing, guitar playing and occasional downtown city scapes. Call Me by Your Name featured lots of apricot juice, characters walking around in soggy bathing suits and, briefly, a fishing handyman. Granted, these are not the only differences between these two low-stakes films, yet I can’t help but imagine that it was these superficial differences that explain why I enjoyed the former much more than the latter.
Regardless, Call Me By Your Name, has an unmistakably well written script. The characters have developed interests, classical music in Elio’s case, that always leave them with something to talk about. Furthermore, no line in the piece is overly ambitious. No one sentence establishes Elio and Oliver’s feelings for each other, nor tries to explain the struggle of being gay in the 80s. Perhaps one of the film’s shortcomings is that it avoids burdening its characters with the latter problem. While the unstated truth of the film is that Elio and Oliver cannot ultimately be together, and they feel a need to keep their relationship secret, the degree to which this is the result of their orientation as opposed to Oliver’s discomfort with their age gap is ambiguous at best. That said, there is some merit to Hammer’s comments in praise of the film. At one moment, an important character makes a speech that slowly and lovingly reveals their support for gay love. The speech is believeable and intelligent, making its performance a valid substitute, for a higher-stakes, homophobia-ridden plot.
Call Me By Your Name may prove a divisive film amongst audiences, but it is not undeserving of the praise it has received. If believable, slow-paced romance, rife with gushy-yet-original lines like “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” is your thing, perhaps your perception of this film will indeed be more like Almodóvar’s and less like mine.