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Opening Oscar season strong is Call Me By Your Name, a terrific, grown-up love story that pulls no punches.
This film is set in 1983, and the title card at the start tells us it’s “somewhere in northern Italy”. Part of this gives it a fairy tale quality to it (“once upon a time, in a faraway land”), but at the same time lends it an air of the timeless: the thing that distinguishes the events in Call Me By Your Name from the modern is the lack of personal devices; it’s not too far in the past because of the permissiveness, or less-than-clandestine nature of Elio and Oliver’s relationship.
Its narrative is unusual, in that the gay romantic dynamic is not overtly frowned upon (cue the shoehorned “naysayer” character, throws in some nonsense about God and morals etc), more reflected as being another one of those doomed-by-time-and-distance summer romances that belie sexuality. This could be any number of summer camp romances, or the storied summer road trip pictures where the younger lover falls for the older person, and is inevitably doomed to be alone by the film’s conclusion.
The airs about the film evoke the time and place – a whole lot of nothing happens for long stretches of time; nobody is any kind of rush to get where they’re going, and like the days the film represents, the long, hot hours stretch into each other and seemingly last forever… which is part of the film’s inherent beauty. It’s also very, very European.
Timothée Chalamet gets to play Elio without any showy “acting” moments. We get hints as to his motives, but nothing is signalled or signposted in James Ivory’s significantly restrained adaptation of the André Aciman novel. Elio is 17, but multilingual, well read, scholarly, and accomplished on both the guitar and piano. Very mature, but at the same time, he’s a teenager, and easily restless and inquisitive. Chalamet captures the multifaceted aspects of late-teens’ longing and inquisition without the melodrama of paint-by-numbers coming of age films. Armie Hammer is in fine form as the object of Elio’s desire, in a role which seems morally questionable at first (he’s a solid 10-15 years older, and Elio’s still a child, after all), but the back and forth, coupled with the revelatory moments of genuine affection (this is a love story, after all) reveal a great deal more about the story and the characters.
In the film’s most affecting sequence, Michael Stuhlbarg is quietly brilliant, encompassing tremendous fatherly compassion, as well as painfully accumulated empathy in a scene where he does what he can to placate Elio and provide him with some insights about making the most of the time we have, and being grateful for what transpired, as opposed to what has been lost.
There’s a well-documented sequence about a peach too, which is kind of genius (if you can get past the impracticality of its use as a sexual aide…such stickiness, ergh) and is one of the script’s smarter moments when you later reflect on it being a throwback to an earlier conversation about the word “apricot” and its entomology through Arabic, Latin and Greek, and how one branch led to the word “precocious”. So, a fruit of another kind, but it makes you think…
That’s Call Me By Your Name in essence: deep, contemplative, quiet and tremendously smart – more so than you might expect.