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REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name
By Eric Hillis, TheMovieWaffler.com
originally published: 11/22/2017
In a time before international travel became accessible to the masses, the cinema was the destination for those who wanted to experience foreign climes. Audiences would sit entranced by adventures set in exotic, far-off lands, even if they were blissfully unaware that they were actually watching a few ferns strategically placed in a studio backlot.
Movies have long ceased to function as surrogate holidays, but every once in a while one comes along that truly gives you the feeling of being transported to another place. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is one such film. Guadagnino not only takes us to a vividly tangible representation of the sun-baked Italian countryside, but back in time to 1983 with one of the most convincing depictions of that decade, one which never relies on cheap pop culture totems. When the closing credits roll (and believe me, this is one movie whose credits you’ll want to stick around for), there’s a palpable feeling of loss, like packing your suitcase on the final day of that one great summer trip abroad.
Everyone has that one summer that stays with them forever. For 17-year-old Elio (newcomer Timothee Chalamet - instant star), it’s the summer of 1983, when worldly and hunky 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives to intern with Elio’s professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elio is dating a pretty young French girl, but soon loses interest when Oliver is placed in an adjoining bedroom, the two young men sharing a bathroom.
At first Elio attempts to cover his affections for Oliver by constantly complaining about his boorish American behavior, and when Oliver attempts to form a bond through their shared intellectual passions, Elio teases the older man, like a girl slapping her schoolyard crush. Eventually, Elio can no longer hold his peace and confesses his feelings to Oliver, and the two men embark on a passionate affair.
Some quarters may complain that despite its gay theme, Call Me by Your Name is yet another story of privileged white men, but this is arguably its greatest strength. There are plenty of queer dramas set in communities that aren’t so tolerant as the intellectuals of Guadagnino’s film, and while many are successful at what they do (Moonlight and God’s Own Country two recent examples), they can often feel like watching a suspense story rather than a romance. Frankly, gay characters on screen are long overdue some privilege.
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Call Me by Your Name isn’t about the fear of coming out, or the threat of being unwillingly outed. Those fears and threats exist, but it’s primarily about the fear of losing your first love, and perhaps never feeling such passion again. Elio knows his relationship with Oliver has a sell by date, as his lover is due to return to the US once the summer ends, but he’s also fearful that it may be his one chance to live the life nature intended for him.
Like Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, time is the antagonist of Guadagnino’s film. In a monologue that will surely become a staple of acting textbooks, Elio’s father encourages his son’s affair, mourning his own wasted youth and remarking how we all reach a point when nobody will want to even look at our bodies, let alone touch them. In one of those rare extended takes that serve a psychological purpose rather than merely an aesthetic one, Guadagnino holds his shot after Elio spills his guts to Oliver and is cruelly forced to wait for a response as Oliver pops into a nearby shop. Guadagnino’s refusal to cut gets us inside Elio’s head, and the tension is unbearable, the statues and church spires of the scenic square the scene plays out in seeming to look down on Elio in judgement.
Much talked about will be a sequence involving a peach. It’s the film’s core scene, as it represents the disparate approaches both men have to their relationship. Caught pleasuring himself with the fruit, Elio turns red-faced, and is mortified when Oliver brazenly takes a mouthful of it, peach juice and ejaculate dripping off his chin. For the confident Oliver, sex has all the import of a mid-day snack. For Elio, it’s become the centre of his world, now that he’s discovered life beyond his books. Is Oliver exploiting or educating his younger lover? The film leaves that up to the viewer to decide.
Call Me by Your Name captures the thrills and uncertainty of that first romance, that special summer where you discover all the things that will later bring you despair and heartbreak, but enough joy to make it all worthwhile. Were it not for the cursed ‘Awards Season’, this could have been the arthouse hit of the summer.
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