When I think back on Call Me By Your Name years from now, I think the thing that will stick with me is that everyone should have a house in northern Italy. As directed by Luco Guadagnino and photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, summers there are idyllic. An epilogue showing the same house as if it were in a snow globe is equally appealing.
That’s the travel porn aspect of Call Be Your Name, which is a “coming of age” story about a teenage boy and an older grad student finding love one summer. That’s lovely and all, but it’s also kind of wan. That they are two men makes it a bit radical, but not as much as it would have thirty-four years ago, in 1983, when the film is set. There is so much lounging in this film that it may want you to take a nap.
Timothee Chalamet is Elio, a seventeen-year-old son of an archeology professor and his Italian wife. Every summer the professor gives a residency to a student to help him with his paperwork (it’s odd that he chooses students he does not know–I’m not sure where the professor teaches). This summer the assistant comes in the big, blond form of Armie Hammer. He is self-assured, and at first Chalamet finds him arrogant, particularly in his use of the word “later” as a goodbye. But eventually they grow closer and closer, and Chalamet is sexually attracted to him. Hammer resists, but finally they spend a night together.
The film, I think, is about young love and the sadness involved when it has to end. There have been a lot of films like this about heterosexual love, such as The Summer of ’42. But I wonder if this is really a “gay film,” as the two characters may not actually be gay, or even bisexual. Chalamet, during the same summer, is losing his virginity to a local girl (Esther Garrel, the kind of girl every guy would love to lose his virginity to), so in some respects this is his awesome summer. Hammer has conquered the heart of another local girl, but we’re not sure if he consummates this relationship. In any event, the inclusion of references and pictures of Greek statuary suggests that the two may have a man-man relationship in the manner of the ancient Greeks. Pederasty was an acceptable form of social relationship, and sexual orientation was not an identifier. It was acceptable for two men to have a relationship without any of the stigma that the modern West has attached to it.
In any event, Call Be Your Name is a sweet love story but hardly a great one. The film moves at a very leisurely pace. It seems nobody ever has anything to do (Hammer is hardly ever shown working, so I’m not exactly sure why he is there). They bicycle into town, go swimming, and do a lot of reading. This is what it was like for teenagers before texting.
Call Be Your Name is well acted. I’ve never seen Homeland, so I had no idea who Chalamet was (he did have a supporting role in Lady Bird) but he’s great, perfectly capturing what it’s like to be seventeen and horny, all limbs and hair. There’s a scene in the film that will do for peaches what American Pie did for apple pie, and Chalamet handles the eroticism and the shame perfectly. Hammer kind of takes charge of the film when he arrives, and is dashing, a word you don’t hear much anymore. The way he gets off his bicycle reminds me how cowboy actors used to get off their horses–you can look manly doing that or not, and Hammer is definitely manly.
Michael Stuhlbarg, who may well be in three of the Best Picture nominees this year (the iffy one is The Post, the slam dunk is The Shape of Water, and this one is in the middle) plays the professor as a kind of Jewish mother (he is more enthusiastic about good news at the end of the film than his wife, and he says “Happy Hanukkah!” one too many times). But he nails a speech at the end when he reveals what he knows about his son’s relationship with Hammer, and how he wishes he had that kind of relationship when he was young.
With so much idiocy in the world, I enjoy films with intelligent people. There’s a wonderful scene when a statue by Praxiteles is pulled out of a lake, and the excitement of the archaeologists is catching. There is also a dizzying conversation around the etymology of the word apricot, with words being batted around like shuttlecocks.
I give Call Me By Your Name a mild thumbs up. I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t be interested in seeing it again, except for the images of Italy.