We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!
As I slipped the SAG Awards DVD screener of Call Me by Your Name into my XBox I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The responses to it I’ve seen from friends and acquaintances have been noticeably, almost impossibly divided. The people around me have settled at the two extremes, maybe not so surprisingly, separated according to their race. Most of my white friends had found it to be a revelation while my PoC friends (most of them Black) were jokingly referring to it as “Moonwhite” while rolling their eyes.
When the screen finally faded to black, away from Elio’s face as he tearfully stared into the fire I was struck by my absence from either camp. I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it. I had enjoyed it as a film for its majority but also struggled to embrace a number of very important aspects of what I had been presented with.
I never read André Aciman’s original novel, and after watching the movie I have no desire to do so, but I do wonder if some of my problems would have been null if I had. There are a number of lingering shots of scenery at the end of scenes, after characters have finished talking and left room, or ridden away on a bicycle, where we’re left with an off-center image of a tree, or a hallway. They feel like an attempt top magnify the emotional relevance of what we’ve just scene by not jumping away to the next scene, but they rarely happened in response to the type of scene that deserved the extra time to sink in. Instead most of the scenes we’re left to consider are transitional one, the scenes between the ones with the emotional and storytelling weight.
There were two exceptions to this. The first came around the midpoint of the movie. When Elio joins Oliver on his trip into town in order to pick up some printed pages the two have a cat an mouse conversation while a statue commemorating the WWI Battle of the Piave River. There is a tacit confirmation of attraction. The two then return to the Perlman home. On the way they pause briefly on their bicycles, Oliver asks Elio if he’s ready and then they ride along down the road and the camera holds its view of a pair of trees and some tall grass. This moment read very similarly to me as an act break in a stage play. It could have very well sufficed as an end point.
The two who had been dancing around their unspoken, unacknowledged attraction, come to an understanding. Their future is unknown. We can guess how it’s going to go, but that’s not the important part of the story. At least, it didn’t have to be. If the movie had ended in that moment I probably would have liked it more, if only because it would have avoided my biggest problems.
Almost immediately after this quiet, touching moment, the pacing descends into a pool of tar. The next twenty-five minutes drag on as the now unspeakable love has been spoken and the two withdraw to their respective corners, neither quite ready to take that next inevitable step. It’s an understandable slowdown, insofar as it’s a believable reaction to each young man’s revelations, but the previously mentioned lingering shots on nothing in particular after unimportant moments are only drawn out further as a result.
My other major problem is with the soundtrack and score. The music itself was all pleasant and thematically appropriate, but often it was too much the obvious choice, on the nose. It failed whatever the musical equivalent of “show, don’t tell” would be. The musical choices didn’t allow the performances to speak for themselves, and especially in this film, that was a mistake. Whenever Elio was struggling with his sexuality and feeling depressed the music quiet and somber, lots of high pitched piano notes.
But it went further than just the mood music, the lyrics also leaned in too hard. In a moment when Elio is waiting for Oliver to return late at night from a poker game, or being with Chiara (it’s never made explicit where he’d gone), Sufjan Stevens’ “Futile Devices” plays, his voice sounding like an inner monologue, “And I would say I love you, but saying it out loud is hard, so I won’t say it at all.” All nuance of Elio’s, for the moment, unfulfilled pining is drained from the scene the audience isn’t allowed to understand on their own what’s happening and are instead signposted to the appropriate emotional response.
Thankfully it wasn’t all bad news. The performances from the entire ensemble were impressive. Timothée Chalamet’s performance belies his true youth and inexperience on the screen. The praise he’s receiving is definitely deserved, and in spite of some of the more obnoxious moments he had to play (why was he perfectly calm and and collected about everything until the peach) he showed us a believable and relatable character. The sexually unsure teenager I saw was one I recognized, one I had seen in my own past.
His onscreen chemistry with Armie Hammer (and actor it turns out I’ve never actually seen in anything before) was immediate and true. The initial awkward discomfort, like two strange cats put in a room together, unsure, constantly circling, up through the passionate disregard of their first sexual encounter. The moments of silence between the two work especially well.
It turns out, in spite of his relative ubiquity in recent years, I’ve never actually seen anything Armie Hammer has been in, and friends of mine who have weren’t always kinds in their descriptions of his performances. Because of this I was surprised at how charming his young, American academic was. Everyone loved Oliver, and so did I. Until he started acting like a pedantic dick, and then I hated him. And it all worked.
But if I had to pick a standout among the cast it would have to be Michael Stuhlbarg. Prior to CMBYN I had seen very little of his work (I’ve since seen The Shape of Water) and now I want to go back and watch his entire catalogue. For most of the film his is a thankless role, Elio’s effete father, an apparently accomplished and renowned professor of history. If you’re not paying attention it might not become apparent until the revelations of his comforting conversation with the heartbroken Elio in the final moments that you’d truly see the mastery of his work.
He shines in the smallest moments, the ones that a viewer not used to looking for the clues would miss. The lingering looks, the occasionally overly jovial responses to others, a freeness with his movement. He’s a proud and caring father, and one that understands all too well what Elio is going through. And it comes through in every moment. His casting in three possible major award contending films this year (CMBYN, Shape of Water, and The Post) isn’t a coincidence. He is a highly gifted actor and hopefully on the verge of a major career breakthrough.
Assorted Other Thoughts
- Oliver and the peach was a surprisingly honest moment.
- Elio’s call to his mother from the train station was an incredibly familiar moment.
- The settings were all gorgeous, particular the old country home the Perlman’s lived in.
- It didn’t go unnoticed that in a movie focused on two queer men understanding and accepting they found an excuse to insert a topless woman and exactly zero dicks. Hollywood will Hollywood.
- The speech Elio’s father gives him after the Oliver returns to America could have easily come across more exposition and “here’s the moral” in the hands of a less capable performer. Instead it felt like an honest moment between a father and his son.
- The final, quite long, shot of Elio in front of the fire was risky and bold choice that paid off. Timothée Chalamet’s emotional journey plays out to perfection on his face, and the decision to have him look directly at the camera felt like a punch in the gut, bringing the audience into his suffering and acceptance.
I’ll be back (hopefully) tomorrow with a short post on my thoughts about The Shape of Water. Since I saw it in at a (quite full) cinema last night I wasn’t able to take any notes so it won’t be nearly as extensive as this was, but I do have thoughts. If my SAG screener for it ever shows up I may give it another watch in the future to do a more thorough reaction, but that will be time permitting.
Let me know what you thought in the comments. Did you love the movie? Hate it? I want to hear from you.
Finally, it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any sort of analytical writing, and I’ve never done so about film, so forgive in the short term if things are a bit of a mess, hopefully and I can reawaken that part of my brain quickly.