“Call Me by Your Name” is a bittersweet depiction of first love in an idyllic setting. The Italian countryside, sunbaked, warm on some days, while gray, rainy, windswept on others, oozes off the screen with a corporeal, you’re there-ness. By film’s end, it’s like you’ve visited “somewhere in Italy” (as a title card points out). But the movie’s no mere travelogue. It’s the people that hold your interest amongst all the pretty.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a tender 17, spends the summer of 1983 with his family on their sprawling estate in northern Italy. An uneventful summer becomes a memorable one with the arrival of 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), a grad student staying with the family while working as a research assistant for Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeology professor. Elio and Oliver have an immediate attraction, but the two dance around their feelings for reasons both obvious and not. As the summer slowly swelters on, the movie follows their pas de deux that grows into a romance.
Portrayals of same-sex relationships are gradually becoming more common. This is a good thing. Still, there seems to be a slight, lingering taboo, an otherness when they’re depicted on the silver screen. It’s rare to see one presented so matter of factly as it is here, with a natural normal attraction. I’m not used to that, and in a fit of un-wokeness, if you will, I kept wondering whether or not Elio and Oliver were gay. The answer, by the end, became clear: It doesn’t matter.
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer give what many will call brave performances, mostly because they do on camera what most of us would be embarrassed to do in the dark. But their acting is impressive and not only because Chalamet coitals a peach just off camera, but because of how deeply they dig into their characters and reveal sides not initially obvious. Honestly, for a good chunk of the movie, I couldn’t stand either of them. There was something too emo about Elio, a “look at me, I feel so much” faux-deepness. Oliver, on the other hand, was a little too arrogant and full of himself. But as the movie progresses, their performances allow us to see their behavior as a front, allow us to see beyond those facades, at the confused teenager and the unsure man, respectively, hiding underneath. As the two characters get to know each other, we get to know them too and actually care about them by film’s end.
That dimensionality also helps ease some of the ick factor that comes with a sexual relationship between a teenager and a man seven years his senior. It’s my understanding that 17 is of legal age in Italy, but legality and morality are strange bedfellows that do not necessarily equate, and their relationship could easily have come off as lascivious. But, through the characterizations, the movie makes clear that their relationship is not based on the fetishization of a young man, but on a mutual attraction of mind and body.
“Call Me by Your Name” is a good movie. The setting, gorgeous cinematography, and soundtrack (which features a pair of haunting songs from Sufjan Stevens) combine for an intoxicating atmosphere, an overall warm experience. But is it great? Many critics seem to think so. The film has made it onto numerous, prestigious best of the year lists and it’s been nominated by the Academy Awards for its highest honor, Best Picture. I too was ready to sing its unending praises. But then I started writing this review and…I found that I didn’t have that much to say. I liked the movie. A lot. But liking a movie and it being great are not necessarily the same thing. “Call Me” doesn’t have the same thematic depth as something like “Phantom Thread,” a picture I adored that is also vying for Oscar’s top award. And on some level, the movie does edge a teensy bit into Hallmark Channel territory, what with beautiful people falling in love among beautiful vistas.
And so I think “Call Me by Your Name” is a little overpraised, especially by people like me, people who are a bit too impressed with themselves for becoming so engrossed in a romance that doesn’t necessarily tap into their sexuality. But the movie doesn’t deserve dismissal, either, not by a long shot. There is an emotional complexity to it, an honesty you wouldn’t see in a Hallmark film; it doesn’t ignore the awkwardness and confusion that come with any relationship (sexual or not). The film is special. But best picture of the year? I’ll let time be the judge of that.