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Review: Call Me By Your Name

December 15, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

It’s the summer of 1983, and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old vacationing on his family’s property in Northern Italy, where his art professor father Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlburg) is working for the summer.

Every year, the professor picks a graduate student to come and help with his research over the summer, and this year those honours have gone to Oliver (Armie Hammer), who arrives from America and comes to stay with the family for six weeks.

Elio starts to become infatuated with Oliver, and they spend the summer having spirited conversations over food and wine, and bonding over their shared enjoyment of music, art and bike rides around town.  This leads to a tentative sexual awakening for the bisexual teenager, as he comes to pursue his first relationship with a man.  Consumed by passion, Elio also starts hooking up with a girl his age (Esther Garrel), but Oliver becomes the point of his fixation, and the two of them subtly and overtly flirt with each other before their relationship takes a physical turn.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, and based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name is an art film that luxuriates in both physical passion and the natural beauty of Italy.  This has caused many audiences to understandably fall under its spell, but I wasn’t as high on the film as others have been.  The story is fairly simple and feels somewhat devoid of conflict or struggle for large parts of the 132 minute running time, which can make it feel somewhat slow moving.  It certainly captures the feeling of a lazy summer, but this doesn’t always make for a compelling viewing experience.

There are some wonderful moments here – the cringe-inducing peach scene notwithstanding – and the film is often enjoyable to watch thanks to its sensuous cinematography, lovely classical score, and solid performances from its leads.  Armie Hammer is allowed to impressively show more of his acting range, and Timothée Chalamet proves himself to be an incredibly promising young star, with the two of them sharing plenty of enjoyable chemistry together.  Michael Stuhlburg is excellent as the understanding father, with the film’s best moment being a poignant and beautifully written scene between him and Timothée Chalamet at the end that brings deeper meaning to the film’s story of sexual awakening.

There are parts of the film that are brilliantly acted and beautifully filmed, and the unbroken final shot that lingers on Timothée Chalamet’s face for several minutes and continues over the end credits, is one for the ages.  But there is also something about the central relationship in Call Me By Your Name that made me a little uncomfortable, and I’ve been wrestling with that feeling since seeing it a few months ago.  If you look at the film in the most basic terms, it’s about a grown man seducing the underage son of the professor he is working for.

Removed from viewing it through the nostalgic, rose coloured glasses of the past, and the burning sexual desire of being a teenager, Oliver’s advances towards Elio, like a shoulder rub after a shirtless volleyball game or changing his pants in front of him with a quick glance back to see if he is looking, could be seen as manipulative.  Yes, their relationship becomes consensual, but at this point in the story, Oliver is only working off the hunch that Elio is actually interested in him.  The film doesn’t really address the fact that a 17-year-old might not have the same level of maturity as someone in their mid-20s, or that there could be a power imbalance between them, and at times it seems like Oliver is taking advantage of the fact that Elio harbours such a youthful crush on him.

When conversations about the uncomfortable nature of some of the film’s sexual content have come up, people point to the fact that in Italy the age of consent is 14.  But this seems like somewhat of a straw man argument to me, and even in light of the recent sex scandals that have rocked Hollywood, it’s seen as taboo to even suggest that the film is sending any sort of mixed messages.  It’s hard to even have these conversations about the film when many detractors have been accused of homophobia, but my problems with the story have nothing to do with the fact that it’s about a relationship between two guys.

If this had been the story of an adult man pursuing a teenaged girl, would it have been received the same way, with so many people viewing it as a tender love story about self-exploration?  To complicate things further, the book states that Oliver is 24, yet Armie Hammer looks much older than that, with the actor having turned 30 at the end of the summer when the film was shot.  And on the other side, Timothée Chalamet appears babyfaced and young, even though he was 20 at the time of filming.  This makes the seven year age gap between the story’s two lovers feel like even more of a divide.

The film does play in the murky grey areas of human behaviour, and I get that.  But whether you view an adult pursuing a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old as something that can be romanticized given the specific circumstances, or as something that is morally ambiguous at best due to the age difference, will invariably affect your enjoyment of Call Me By Your Name.  I liked parts of the film, and I do recognize the artistic merits of the cinematography and performances, but it didn’t make me swoon like it has so many other viewers.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gideon permalink
    December 16, 2017 4:45 pm

    Well, this review is rubbish. I understand that the age gap is making some people uncomfortable (though they seem to be fine with it in dirty dancing), however it also feels that a lot of people, this review included, are projecting a narrative into this story that isn’t there. In both, the film and book, Oliver isn’t the seducer. He in no way manipulates nor uses power over Elio. You mentioned the scene when he rubs his shoulder while misleading the meaning of it. It is expressed in the book/film that he indeed does this to show interest in Elio, however when Elio reacts uncomfortably (not because he didn’t like it but because he liked it too much) Oliver backs off and distances himself from him. This distance goes on for a while in the film/book and it is even mentioned towards the end in a conversation between both characters. Elio is the “pusher” in this story and even after he originally confesses, Oliver turns him down. There isn’t anything manipulative about Oliver’s actions.

    There is something that I wish the film would have showcased more which is implied in the book. which is that Oliver’s interest in Elio is focused mainly in Elio’s intellect and talent. It is when Elio is discussing literature or playing music that Oliver gazes at him. His interest for Elio never comes off as a perverted or manipulative.

    I understand we are at a very sensitive time in US culture but to blow smoke where there isn’t fire for the sake of being outraged is very disingenuous and it only takes away focus from the real issues. You should critique a work based on it’s qualities/flaws and not by adding a narrative that isn’t here for the sake of proving your opinion.

    Like

    • December 17, 2017 12:11 am

      Well, we clearly had different reactions to the film, and that’s fine. I did mention in the last paragraph of my review that how people feel about the central relationship will affect their enjoyment of the film.

      Just to clarify, I saw the film at TIFF in September, a month before all of the news started breaking about Hollywood. So I had a lot of time to think about it removed from that context, and have thought it over quite a bit since then, and still have mixed feelings about it. So it was never my intention to add to the current outrage culture.

      I respect your right to have a different opinion than me, but that doesn’t make my opinion rubbish. And for what it’s worth, I think there are some problems with Dirty Dancing as well.

      Like

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