Saturday, December 9, 2017

Call Me by Your Name: Veneer of Romance

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name.

In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, an American grad student in his mid-twenties named Oliver (Armie Hammer) spends six weeks in northern Italy during the summer months in residence as a research assistant to an archeologist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has a love affair with Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), his host’s seventeen-year-old son. Neither of the young men identifies himself as gay – the first object of Oliver’s amorous attentions is Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), a neighbor of the Perlmans, and before Elio cements his relationship with Oliver he loses his virginity to Chiara’s daughter Marzia (Esther Garrel). Guadagnino and the screenwriter, James Ivory (adapting a novel by André Aciman), present their romance as a perfect confluence of physical and emotional energies at an ideal time in both their lives – especially Elio’s, since it’s his coming-of-age story – and in an ideal setting, a beautiful old villa in a picturesque town set against the magnificent landscape of Lombardy. (Sayombhu Mukdeeprom photographed.) Elio is a great-looking kid with an air of social and intellectual privilege; he’s fluent in English, French and Italian – his mother (Amira Casar) is Italian – his family has lived all over, he’s an accomplished pianist, and he has a comfortable, bantering relationship with the teenagers of the other summer people in the town. He walks around shirtless in shorts or swim trunks, smoking; he might be the image of the adolescent on holiday, snug in his own skin. But he holds back. He spends more time alone, reading or transcribing music, than he does with the other kids, and when they go to a club he’s the last on the dance floor. We see him eyeballing Oliver, who’s physically expressive – in sports, at a dance, or just lying on the edge of the pool reading – and it’s clear that he both envies the older man and is somewhat resentful of how easily he fits in. Their bedrooms are next door to each other – he has to give up his own room to this American visitor – and the day Oliver shows up, he’s so jet-lagged that he plops himself down on his bed, falls asleep instantly and opts to skip dinner, and Elio is put off by his refusal to act the role of the guest who does what’s expected of him. He thinks that Oliver’s impulsiveness and his manner are arrogant – and the fact that both his parents take to Oliver immediately and aren’t remotely bothered by his style doesn’t help. But Oliver reaches out to him in a friendly way, and Elio loses his skepticism – which is, of course, just a resistance to his own attraction to Oliver.

Guadagnino sets up the movie skillfully, but the shift to the romance isn’t convincing – and from that point on, nothing else is either, or it wasn’t for me. The two men bike into town together and in the square Oliver hands Elio a compliment about how knowledgeable he is, and Elio rejects it, protesting that when it comes to important things he’s ignorant. “You know what I’m talking about,” he presses Oliver. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Oliver replies. I buy that a seventeen-year-old who feels a sexual attraction to a great-looking man seven years his senior is likely to be oblique about conveying what he’s feeling, but I couldn’t figure out how Oliver got the message so quickly, even though (we find out later) he felt drawn just as strongly to Elio. This scene doesn’t scan; it feels like a clumsy effort on the part of the screenwriter to move us into the courtship. Lying in a field a few scenes later, the men flirt but Oliver pulls away from a kiss with Elio; he insists that so far they haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, and they should keep it that way. But Elio reaches out and grabs Oliver’s crotch, asking, “Am I offending you?” – and the audacity of the pass feels distinctly odd, coming from a kid with no previous sexual experience with other guys who’s coming on to a twenty-four-year-old.

Timothée Chalamet and Esther Garrel in Call Me by Your Name.

I thought that Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009), with Tilda Swinton as a woman who falls for her son’s best friend, was ridiculously swoony and melodramatic, and though his next film, A Bigger Splash (2015), had a sensational performance by Ralph Fiennes and a fine one by Swinton, I found it, too, to be pumped up. In all three of these movies Guadagnino substitutes glossiness for drama. I could never figure out exactly what Oliver was doing for Elio’s father, and except for a lovely interlude where Mr. Perlman, on a jaunt to a nearby site with Oliver and Elio, looks at a statue of Venus submerged in the water we never get to see him engaged in any concrete way in his academic discipline, so most of this aspect of the movie feels fudged, tentative. To be truthful I never believed for a minute that Oliver was a graduate student. More to the point, the movie’s treatment of his relationship with Elio is superficial, approximate rather than specific. The first time they sleep together, in Oliver’s room, the playfulness of the foreplay is charming, and the script accounts for Elio’s nervousness and his eagerness, but most of their subsequent scenes together amount to shots of them sleeping in each other’s arms or one of them awake looking admiringly at the other still asleep. If I’m complaining that there isn’t enough explicit sex, it's because the few (relatively) explicit moments tell us something about the relationship while the iconic romantic ones Guadagnino goes in for mostly tell us what kinds of Hollywood movies he likes to watch. We’re adults; we can handle Blue Is the Warmest Color, with its detailed depiction of the sexual relationship between two women (who are approximately the same age when the movie begins as Elio and Oliver). Call Me by Your Name, by comparison, comes across as timid. Guadagnino wants to tell us the story of this love affair, but he makes it so damn photogenic and so damn sanitized that it isn’t real. There’s very little tension between the two lovers, and none at all when, inevitably, Oliver has to go home to the States, just sadness on both their parts (and, naturally, especially on Elio’s) that the affair is over. And Elio’s parents are so implausibly liberal that, when they figure out what’s going on, they send the two men off together for a three-day holiday before Oliver has to get on his flight. After Elio comes home heartbroken over his lover’s departure, his dad gives him a speech about the importance of holding onto your heartbreak and assures him that he’s lucky to have had such a beautiful relationship. His gratitude (and his wife’s) for the way Oliver has enriched their son’s life is amazing. It’s also a crock. He assures Elio that Oliver, like him, is a good person, but though we have no evidence to the contrary, I wondered what Mr. Perlman was basing his assessment on. Wouldn’t it be more likely for him to decide that the twenty-four-year-old who had opted to sleep with his teenage son is an insidious bastard – even if we’re not supposed to think so?

Within the limitations of his role, Hammer does quite well; I always like watching Armie Hammer, who slips into the skin of his characters with so little fuss that it’s easy to underrate him. (As Clyde Tolson, he was the only bright spot in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.) But I don’t get all the excitement over Timothée Chalamet. His acting is highly competent, and he’s certainly an arresting camera subject, but there’s nothing distinctive about him – the way there was about Miles Teller in his first picture, Rabbit Hole, or about Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea. Stuhlbarg has an impossible role, and I generally find him stagy anyway. But Esther Garrel does a lot with the small part of Marzia, who lets Elio have sex with her and then – for reasons she can’t understand – finds herself dealing with a young woman’s most clichéd sorrow: that she has given herself to a boy she has feelings for and he drops her the very next day. In her scenes with Chalamet, I found myself watching her, not him. When Elio returns from his trip with Oliver, Marzia tells him that she’s not angry with him for the way he treated her and that she wants to remain friends. The scene, too, pretties up the story, but Garrel brings it a trace of humanity that makes it more touching than any interaction between the two men.

Without a doubt I prefer Call Me by Your Name to the other recent movie about a gay romance, God’s Own Country, a kitchen-sink English drama that makes a virtue out of the ugliness of the two men’s grimy work on a Yorkshire sheep farm and can’t even shoot them having sex without throwing in some mud. I watched the whole lousy picture, but I felt like throwing in the towel when the protagonist kicked a dead calf in close-up – this is the kind of rub-your-nose-in-it “realism” that makes it obvious that the director hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. The movie would have been better off focusing on convincing us how this semi-Neanderthal could end up with the rather elegant Romanian émigré who comes to work on his daddy’s farm. I guess I’m bourgeois enough to want to watch an airbrushed item like Call Me by My Name instead of something like God’s Own Country; at least I didn’t feel by the end as if I’d been punished. The title of Guadagnino’s film, by the way, is a reference to Oliver’s idea that he and Elio should call address each other by each other’s name when they’re alone. It’s a sort of private language – and it feels like one more romantic affectation.

Addendum: At the urging of a friend, I read André Aciman's novel and wished I'd had the foresight to do so before seeing the picture. It's an absolute knockout – perhaps the finest sexual coming-of-age story this side of Sons and Lovers. Aciman's prose doesn't soar like D.H. Lawrence's, but he shares Lawrence's bracing honesty about sex, about both the way it's inseparable from romantic obsession and the way it can act, intermittently, like a tonic for that obsession. In the book, the morning after Elio sleeps with Oliver for the first time, he wakes up with feelings of revulsion and anger because the remnants of their lovemaking are sordid and uncomfortable and a sour reminder that he's no longer the boy he was the day before. I can't think of a passage about morning-after regret that's quite like this one. Aciman's chronicle of the sexual relationship between Elio and Oliver is dense with precisely what I complained is in such short supply in the movie; you get the emotions of both men through the physical acts and through their response to them.

The book is entirely in Elio's point of view (the movie is not), and even when his behavior is exactly the same as it is in the movie, it makes much more sense because we understand what's going on in his head to motivate it. The movie tells us more about what Oliver is feeling – his trepidation about letting himself fall into bed with this teenager, however much Elio seems to be coming on to him, and his anxiety the next day that he's done something they'll both be sorry for. Mostly that's because Armie Hammer is much more expressive as an actor than Timothée Chalamet, who relies on acting tropes that operate like awkward metaphors for Elio's emotions – roaming around the square or Oliver's room, looking away pointedly, smiling cryptically, bouncing up against Oliver like a little boy who doesn't know what to do with his physical energy. But Ivory's adaptation mostly gives Chalamet unmoored excerpts from the novel to play, and you can hardly blame a twenty-one-year-old novice actor for not knowing how to fill in what the script leaves out.

Aciman writes about a love affair that haunts both men for the rest of their lives because they find themselves through each other; that's what the title is all about, and it's the meaning, too, of the powerful scene where Oliver insists on taking a bite of a peach that Elio, alone in his room, has masturbated into. This scene has some pungency in the movie, too, but mostly as an expression of Elio's sexual curiosity and sense of adventure. When Oliver walks into the room, Ivory and Guadagnino short-circuit what follows and then turn it into a scene about Elio weeping in his lover's arms because he doesn't want him to leave Italy and bring their romance to an end. Without having read the book, and since Guadagnino interrupts the gesture, I had to guess what it meant when Oliver picked up the peach. My guess was he was performing a sexual act that required excessiveness, almost masochism, to make its point – like Brando in Last Tango in Paris demanding that Maria Schneider shove her fingers up his ass, except that in this case the act was more obviously one of devotion. (Brando's giving himself up to Schneider is equal parts devotion and cynicism.) I was half right: in Aciman's version it's devotion, yes, but also self-definition – he's saying to Elio, in a way, "What's yours is mine."

One of the most extraordinary sections in the book is a long description of the first night Oliver and Elio spend in Rome together, which involves music and poetry and alcohol and a great many other characters who help to make it the best night of the boy's life. What the movie comes up with instead isn't much better than those generalized romantic montages we've seen in hundreds of movies. No wonder we can't comprehend what the hell is going on between these two. Guadagnino ends his movie with a phone call, months after the two men part ways, in which Oliver announces that he's going to be married. Aciman goes much farther: in the last fifteen pages we leap forward in time once, twice, three times. These last pages are as much about time, its cruel thefts as well as its mysterious gifts, as they are about an indelible love affair. The novel moves into your imagination; the movie, by comparison, is a pretty blank. When I closed the book, finally, around midnight, I was crying, and sleep was out of the question.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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