MOVIE REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name


Special Presentation selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


For this writer, Call Me By Your Name begs a volley of questions on the precarious notion of love.  Are there undisputed traits of love regardless of the culture or orientation of the coupling?   Do all of the words and acts of love come from the same sense of soul if the person was white, black, gay, straight, rich, poor, religious, atheist, or any core belief and demographic in between?  At the same time, what are the irrefutable boundaries that cannot be crossed, even in the name of love?  What informs and enforces those romantic edicts?  

As audience members with your own inherent dispositions, the challenge of Call Me By Your Name comes down to a pair of essential questions that might as well be this website’s first two life lessons for the film.  

LESSON #1: EMPATHIZING WITH LOVE DIFFERENT THAN YOURS-- Can you empathize with the universality of love when it appears in a relationship different than your own value set?  

LESSON #2: CONDONING A DIVERGENT CHOICE-- Can you excuse a conflicting path in a relationship different from your own inclinations and preferences?  

To combine both of those lesson points, are you willing to recognize love to be love no matter what?  Welcome to the confounding quandary of Luca Guadagnino’s new film and the closing chapter of his self-described “Desire” trilogy following 2010’s I Am Love and 2015’s A Bigger Splash.  Call Me By Your Name might be the most challenging film you see this year.

The fictional drama penned by the legendary James Ivory is set during the summer of 1983.  Elio Perlman (Interstellar and Lady Bird actor Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old Jewish-American living abroad with his parents among the peach and apricot orchards in the Cremona province of northern Italy.  Lithe and growing in experience with the local girls, Elio is a well-read and highly talented young man on the edge of full adulthood.  His father (Michael Stuhlbarg, in his third film of this Oscar season after The Post and The Shape of Water) is in Italy working as an archeology professor.

Mr. Perlman invites Oliver, played by the top-billed Armie Hammer, a graduate student and fellow Jew, to spend the summer living with his family and assisting with the academic and project work.  Oliver is a tall and strapping eyeful that wears a big hint of arrogance as well as his Star of David necklace and trendy Converse shoes.  Confident and athletic, Oliver is a head-turner.  At his parents’ request, Elio is charged with playing pal and tour guide for Oliver.  Elio initially loathes Oliver’s presence and stature only to feel his ignorance turn into interest and desire, a progression reciprocated by Oliver as well.

Call Me By Your Name features tenderly audacious performances from the three main men.  Channeling his matinee idol charisma into unrestrained passion, Armie Hammer continues to improve as a dramatic actor in arguably his best role to date.  As the supportive father, the exquisitely soothing Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a heart-to-heart speech for the ages that is beyond poignant, but possibly too little and too late into the film.  

The catalyst for every flutter is the multi-talented Timothée Chalamet.  The 22-year-old bears a heavy emotional burden of creating a build of confidence against awkwardness.  He brilliantly portrays the sways between confused fragility and awakened sexual intensity.  If trends continue, the young man may very well become the youngest winner of the Best Actor Academy Award.

Extended from the acting, the artful lushness of Guadagnino’s film cannot be questioned.  The ethereal music from singer-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens rises as third voice of romantic expression putting words to unspoken monologues that could be swimming in the thoughts of Elio and Oliver.  The camerawork from Thai director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is sunny and vibrant in every frame.  Over the course of Call Me By Your Name, his lens inches closer and closer from the peripheral Italian beauty towards the faces of Hammer and Chalamet, ending on a tight close-up coda of wordless anguish, backed by a final Stevens song playing through the closing credits.

No matter the charm and beauty, what can be questioned is the connection.  Circle all of the emotionality back to the opening essential questions.  Your tolerance is the key to connecting to Call Me By Your Name.  Your comfort level for the homoerotic summer romance being woven and your acceptance of the controversial age difference within this narrative are everything.  Either of those two qualities could be easily ignored obstacles for some or a no-go hang-ups for others.  Guadagnino’s film does not make a compelling enough case for both essential questions to be easy and affecting yeses.  Exceedingly slow and lumbering with awkward posturing throughout, Call Me By Your Name, even in its inspiring peaks, is missing the rapturous sweep to bring outsiders into these taboos.

LESSON #3: THE TREPIDATION OF FORBIDDEN LOVE-- The barometer of the age difference, the competing turn-ons and turn-offs, the juggled sexual orientations, the required secrecy, and the inevitable temporary nature of what Elio and Oliver share overflows with anxieties that define the film.  They know the wrongs, but their hearts push forward.  Courage becomes an prevailing layer here, between the courage the ask questions and the courage to love despite expected norms.

LESSON #4: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DESIRE AND LOVE-- This may be the final fundamental bonding point test for Call Me By Your Name.  This romance is essentially a summer fling with questionable notes of sexual awakening and sexual grooming underneath a playful courtship where physical touch is subtle and then not.  It means more to one of them than the other.  If you define the narrative of this film as desire and not true love, there’s another arm’s length of distance to keep you from fully committing to this film.