Review: 'Call Me By Your Name' is curiously haunting

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/13/18 2:30am

As the 90th Academy Awards ceremony draws closer, it’s hard not to compare the various nominees, particularly those in the Best Picture category. After all, cinema does not exist in a vacuum. When one considers “Call Me By Your Name” from that perspective, it does have at least one noteworthy quality that, for better or for worse, distinguishes it from the pack: The film has the ability to haunt the viewer. One leaves the theater enveloped by the film’s narrative and everything it entails, both the good and the bad. “Call Me By Your Name” didn’t move me as much as “Lady Bird”did, nor did it elicit the same visceral bodily reactions as “Dunkirk.” It didn’t make me think as much as “Get Out,” and it wasn’t as beautiful or profoundly simple in its execution compared to Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” But “Call Me By Your Name” stayed with me. In fact, it is still with me — even as I try to write this review, I occasionally find myself not being able to decide how to address my overall experience. For a film that tries so hard to be like a window into reality, it has a surprisingly hallucinatory power.

In 1983, 17-year-old Elio lives in northern Italy with his parents, idling away his summer days with books and a flirtatious but ultimately irrelevant relationship with Marzia, his girlfriend. Oliver, a 24-year-old American graduate student, interrupts Elio’s tranquil existence when he arrives to assists the boy’s father, who is an archeology professor. After some initial tension, Elio and Oliver begin a tenuous, secret romance that — surprise, surprise — must end when Oliver returns to America as the summer draws to a close.

As I revised the previous paragraph, I contemplated whether there was anything else worth adding to my brief synopsis of the film — yet there really isn’t. One of the reasons the film left such a strange impression on me was that it so thoroughly defied certain conventional story mandates. In essence, screenwriter James Ivory’s adaptation of André Aciman’s book positions itself as a 1980s “meet cute” for the LGBTQ+ community, but the honesty and fluidity of the deeply humanist storytelling negates the clichéd plot beats of a typical romance film.

Speaking of Ivory, it is worth noting that he was originally set to co-direct the film before stepping down so he would not conflict with director Luca Guadagnino. Guadagnino has since confirmed that Ivory’s version of the film would have included a voice-over and would also have been considerably more explicit in terms of nudity and sex scenes. Of course, we will never really know how Ivory’s unfettered vision for the film might have played out. After all, Guadagnino has also implied that the original screenplay would have been far too expensive to film with their modest budget. That said, I constantly wondered if Ivory’s more aggressive, more explicit vision might have better suited the film or at least resulted in a more engaging final product.

“Call Me By Your Name,” to be clear, is beautiful. Guadagnino excels at composing images that drip with sensuality and grandeur. He’s also a master of the smaller moments, artfully capturing the awkward, unnatural early stages of many romances. There’s a wonderful scene early in the film where Oliver rolls over into a small pool so he can avoid further conversation with Elio — it’s an ingenious little touch that speaks volumes.

That said, the film is also painstakingly slow and perhaps a touch pretentious for its own good. It name-drops German philosopher Martin Heidegger and Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel as if such topics are normal, even pedantic, for these people. Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing intrinsically problematic with a film that cushions itself in references to “high culture,” but such an approach can also distance the spectator from the film. I wanted to be pulled into the world of these characters, but I felt too often as if I was watching them through a glass window. Again, nobody knows if Ivory’s more extreme approach could have resolved any of these complaints, but a part of me wishes that he had the opportunity to complete what he started.

That said, perhaps no other director but Guadagnino could have elicited such stellar performances from his actors. Timothée Chalamet’s work as Elio has garnered enough praise to rightfully net him a Best Actor nomination. The film is told almost entirely from his point of view, and Chalamet has to convey a lot without dialogue; almost all of the weight in this story exists purely in the subtext. Nonetheless, Armie Hammer deserves just as much, if not more, praise for his portrayal as Oliver. His humor, confidence and self-assured swagger provides some much-needed levity during some of the film’s slower sequences.

Michael Stuhlbarg is also excellent as Elio’s father. For most of the film, he is little more than a background character, but during the final act, he’s granted one of the most unexpected and moving monologues I’ve had the delight of experiencing in recent memory. Indeed, that monologue alone is worth the price of admission and is in no small part why the film managed to stick with me despite my initial lukewarm response.

Sadly, the film almost completely ruins the goodwill built up in that scene by squandering the audience’s time with a tedious and mostly pointless epilogue which does little more than reinforce what Stuhlbarg eloquently spoke about minutes earlier. In a sense, that monologue juxtaposed with the epilogue encapsulates the overall experience of watching “Call Me By Your Name.” It’s a bumpy ride — sometimes tedious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes pretentious and sometimes charming. Yet once it’s all over, you forget the weaker moments and instead focus on those moments that soar in often inexplicable ways. You may not always be able to fully comprehend why or how these moments moved you, but what matters is that they did.