Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.
Earlier today, I spotted a tweet from fellow blogger Wendell Ottley commenting that he’d just watched Call Me by Your Name and wasn’t really feeling the love for it. I was about halfway through at the moment (almost exactly), and I get exactly where he’s coming from. This might annoy any number of people who seem to think that this is one of the great films of last year, but, like Wendell said in his tweet, I’m just not feeling it. It’s certainly well-made and it’s pretty enough, but I don’t feel like there’s a great deal here to get excited about.
I should say, though, that there are some things that I appreciate about the film. One is that it breaks a particular “rule” of coming-of-age films. I’ve railed against the fact that this sort of film is almost always about death for young men and sex for young women. Well, this is clearly a coming-of-age film and it’s about a young man and sex. The difference here might well be that instead of coming to terms with his mortality, our main character instead needs to come to terms with his bisexuality or homosexuality. The film isn’t entirely clear on that, which isn’t a fault of the film. <-!!more-->
Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is 17 and lives with his parents in Northern Italy. Elio is something of a musical prodigy, and he spends his summers reading and studying music. This year, his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor, has invited Oliver (Armie Hammer) to come spend the summer. Oliver is a graduate student, and the experience will be valuable for him in his studies and will also help the professor in his work. This is evidently a relatively common occurrence; the professor’s wife Annella (Amira Casar) seems used to the idea that her orchard will play host every summer by a student.
Elio and Oliver initially seem to have little in common. Elio is intense and studious while Oliver is much more laid back and relaxed. At this point, Elio has a local girlfriend named Marzia (Esther Garrel) while Oliver seems to be attracted to another local girl.
Despite this, and despite the fact that Elio and Marzia eventually do have their relationship become a sexual one, there is a certain attraction between Elio and Oliver, and while we focus much more on Elio, that attraction appears to be mutual. Eventually, the two act on this mutual attraction despite what seems to be some initial misgivings on Oliver’s part. The two eventually become close, and as Oliver’s time in Italy nears its close, the two spend a few days together before he leaves. There is a coda after this that I won’t spoil—if you’d heard anything about this film, you knew at least 100 minutes of its 132-minute running time.
Here’s the thing: Call Me by Your Name is a pretty film and I won’t argue about how well made it is. It’s pretty and nicely made, and I like the cast in general. That said, I don’t love the characters that much, and that’s the main problem I have with Call Me by Your Name. Elio comes off as a bit of a drudge, and someone who thinks a great deal of himself. I get that he speaks a few languages and I get that he’s talented musically, but he’s pretty smug about it. Oliver seems like a nice enough guy, but it’s also hard for me to get beyond the pederast-y feel of the film. If Elio were named Elia, the idea of her having a sexual relationship with a 24-year-old graduate student while still in the equivalent of high school would be the sort of thing to make the film notorious. Having the relationship be a homosexual one doesn’t suddenly make me approve of the fact that Oliver is having sex with a minor.
And that’s the other main problem I have with this film. It’s the same problem I had with The Kids are All Right. At its heart, this isn’t a particularly unique story. In fact, it’s a story that we’ve all seen a bunch of times. Take out the sex and the gender, and this isn’t really that different from Roman Holiday in a lot of respects. And here’s the thing—the fact that Oliver and Elio are either gay or, more likely, bisexual doesn’t make me like them. A standard story doesn’t become a special one just because it has a gay storyline.
What this means is that while I didn’t dislike Call Me by Your Name, I also didn’t see it as being anything unique or special. It’s a love story that happens to also involve a relationship that was much more taboo at the time (the film takes place in the ‘80s) and, thanks to the ages of the characters, at least borders on being abusive. I get why people like it. I don’t get why they love it.
Why to watch Call My by Your Name: A surprisingly tender romance.
Why not to watch: Just because they’re gay doesn’t make me like them.