Dear Fellow Critics,
2017, for me, was a bullshit year. I lived for ten months in a gutted house undergoing renos. I lost one of my best friends very suddenly. I took in an ill family member, spent an exorbitant amount of money and sleepless nights on a beloved dog with an unknown illness, all while personally enduring medically induced menopause and its inherent delights (weight gain, hot flashes, mood swings).
And that’s just the bullshit I’m willing to share. Honestly, there were days when I felt like I was in a movie (the kind I’d pan for being too contrived).
For the first time in many years movies weren’t just my job, they were a refuge. Films like Good Time, Dunkirk ,Get Out, Lady Bird, I, Tonya, The Darkest Hour, Ingrid Goes West, The Lost City of Z – and so many more – reminded me why I love watching movies. In a year when I struggled to keep my emotions in check, movies allowed me to experience them in the most unapologetically selfish way. 2017 was the year I realized just how much I need movies. And no movie exemplified this more than Call Me By Your Name.
Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age, coming-out, first-love story. There’s no elaborate camera work (the entire film was shot using a single lens), no special effects, no larger social allegory to lend it gravitas. The characters are privileged, good-looking, and white. The drama isn’t necessarily grand (in the cinematic sense). This is a simple story to tell, and yet it would have been very easy to get it wrong. This film asks next to nothing of us – there are no leaps of logic or faith, no suspension of disbelief required – but it gives so much in return.
Call Me By Your Name, more than anything else, gives us permission to feel.
It should be easy to fall in love with a film about falling in love, especially when the two lovers are Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, and especially when the falling happens in a rustic villa in the Italian countryside. Yet Call Me By Your Name challenges the viewer in ways I wasn’t expecting. This film doesn’t wash over you. Rather it expects you to engage with the characters, and the insecurities that belie their seemingly effortless lives. It requires you to be patient while relationships develop, and trust that the payoff will be gratifying.
Director Luca Guadagnino singles out the elements of longing – lust, excitement, fear, awkwardness – and distills them into a palpable, physical ache; that wanting we feel for another human being. He takes what is indescribable about love and attraction and defines it: specifically for these characters, and universally for the audience. All of us, at least those most fortunate among us, have felt this kind of desire. Yet none of us have felt it quite like Elio and Oliver. The individual moments – dancing to Psychedelic Furs, swimming at dawn, playfully touching feet – belong entirely to them. But Guadagnino makes their desire so corporeal, so visceral, that it somehow feels like it’s happening to us. It is nothing short of cinematic sorcery.
I saw this film twice, wondering if upon second viewing that the magic spell would hold. It does.
The first viewing I focused on Elio, the 17 year-old protagonist who is brilliant and precocious and naïve and serious sometimes all in the same scene. Chalamet’s performance is as brave as it is unselfconscious, floating between childhood and adulthood, too smart not to be deeply aware of his predicament. When Oliver arrives to spend a summer working alongside Elio’s father, he is an American Adonis, oozing charm and confidence. It’s almost impossible for Elio not to fall for him. He is everything Elio is not.
Upon second viewing, I paid more attention to Oliver. “The interloper,” as Elio calls him. Oliver is the affable and erudite American, a role that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for Hammer—until fragments of his vulnerability are revealed. Elio is the product of a cool, Euro-centric upbringing, he is beloved by his intellectual parents, he is a gifted musician, and exudes a quiet self-assuredness beyond his years. Oliver masks his attraction to Elio with bravado and faux-indifference. The second time around I noticed how layered Hammer’s performance was, and how neither man feels worthy of the other. Only in Oliver’s case is this most likely true.
Guadagnino crafts a thoroughly modern film that manages to seem trapped in amber. Against a backdrop that is lush, sumptuous, and fecund, interiors that feel like masters paintings, with a soundtrack that features songs by Kenny Rogers and Sufjan Stevens, a cast so natural I can’t help but imagine them still living in that Italian village, Call Me By Your Name is as real as anything I’ve experienced. This film doesn’t allow you to be passive. It practically demands an emotional response. And it does so subtly, without manipulation or coercion, and in such a way that you quite simply don’t know what hit you. Much like falling in love.
And then it breaks your heart.
Following Oliver’s return to America, Elio’s father, sensing his son’s loss, delivers one of the most eloquent and affecting monologues I think I’ve ever heard on film. I prefer its potency to remain intact for those who still haven’t seen the film, but will share this one beautiful line, delivered with sweetness and not a hint of condescension by the brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg;
“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!”
Beyond my personal travails, 2017 was surreal, fraught with daily reminders that the free world is being run by a literal madman, and that the “normal” I took for granted was gone (or perhaps never existed). There was barely time to register outrage before a newer, more cruel absurdity replaced the last. So much happened that I think, for many of us, adopting a neutral emotional disposition was a coping mechanism, a defense against utter despair. So I actively suppressed my emotions because I truly feared that indulging them might end me.
I cried for the last ten minutes of Call Me By Your Name. Then I cried even harder during the credits, (which will make sense if you’ve seen the film). I cried my way out of the theatre, to my car, and during my whole drive home. Then I got home and cried for another 40 minutes. I cried for Elio and Oliver, and for my own unrequited loves, and for love itself. I cried because I feared I was one of those who Elio’s father claimed went bankrupt by thirty. And then I cried for all the times I wanted to cry but didn’t.
Would Call Me By Your Name be my favourite film of 2017 if it didn’t make me cry? I don’t know. But it is my favourite film because it did.