Perhaps I should have seen it coming.
Buried within the seven films I saw at this year’s SCAD Savannah Film Festival was Luca Guadagnino’s coming of age love story Call Me By Your Name. I’d been looking forward to seeing it, of course, but only as much as any other of the films scheduled to play that week. But I’d forgotten how much I love coming of age stories. And I’d not equated the film with my own Italian honeymoon. And I’d packed away all of the lush memories, some painful and some endearing, of great experiences and loves of my youth.
Call Me By Your Name brought all that back to me. Washed it over me. In spades.
If you’ve ever been to Italy, then you know its appeal. It lies within the landscape and the food and the music and the architecture and the sun – permeating everything and giving you this sort of intoxicating contact high. You stumble through the quaint villages and gorgeous countryside in this haze of love. Love doesn’t even really fully describe the state it puts you in. It’s like this constant state of… well… horniness. Everything there feels sexual and sexy. Even casually flipping on television in a hotel room, I was amazed by the prevalence of sexuality in Italian culture. Where Americans may have commercials for anti-depressants and their endless side effects, Italian television owned the airwaves with soft-core porn ads for 900 numbers. There is nudity everywhere tucked delicately in between the wine and the pasta.
It’s no accident that, nine months following my Italian honeymoon, my son was born.
It’s that kind of perma-sexual haze in which Call Me By Your Name’s Elio (Timothée Chalamet) finds himself when he first meets Armie Hammer’s Oliver. Despite perhaps being a few years too old for the role, Hammer ultimately embodies Oliver in a perfect match of actor to role. To justify Elio’s obsession, Oliver has to hold an iconic magnetism. Women have to want him. Men have to want to be him… and want him secretly. Hammer exudes that aura in reality and in the film. It wouldn’t work without an actor of that nature in the role. You have to understand the obsession. It’s as critical to the story as the luxurious Italian setting.
Once you understand that connection, the film owns you. It helps that Guadagnino understands what lies at the core of the material and the appeal of his homeland. His elegant direction guides the actors through the delicate material, setting them at the forefront and putting his own directorial flourishes aside. He makes brave choices, not just in the material itself but in what he chooses not to show. An American filmmaker would have likely included the novel’s epilogue – a quick flash-forward into the future and America – but it would have wrapped the emotions of the film in a tacky tinsel bow. He wisely closes the film with a long take of an actors face, tears silently streaming down his cheek as he stares into a roaring fire. The take is held for some 5 minutes. It holds you in your seat for at least 10. That is the brilliance of Guadagnino’s direction.
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer reportedly became great friends on set, and it shows here. As the two obsessives, they have a chemistry missing in most male-to-female onscreen pairings. Chalamet, in particular, is a revelation in the role. He is at once both a petulant, precocious child and a heartsick puppy. He holds a “wise beyond his years” air underscored with hints of immaturity. It’s the kind of performance that a man twice his age would deliver, yet Chalamet does it while barely being old enough to buy alcohol legally. He is one of the strongest contenders for Best Actor this year that I’ve seen.
But as great as his is, Hammer almost has the trickier role. An actor could easily coast on his good looks and animal magnetism to play Oliver. Hammer doesn’t do that. He casually lets his inner teenage boy slip through the cracks of the older, more experienced exterior. He has to balance his good-looking confidence with hints of insecurity. It’s as nuanced a performance as Hammer has ever given. In an unpredictable Supporting Actor race, you can imagine a scenario where voters take him for granted and leave him out of contention. That would be a shame. He more than deserves a slot in the five.
In my opinion, Call Me By Your Name easily emerges as one of the very best films of 2017. It comes in a difficult year filled with tough stories and depressing news. It offers the kind of escapism that only the best films truly can. It instantly whisked me back 25 years to my days as an exchange student in France where I’d made awkward and rebuffed romantic advances to local girls. It made me think about letting go of my first girlfriend and then later saying goodbye to her as she died of cancer. It made me fantasize about spending a carefree three weeks in Italy with my new bride – eating, drinking, and fucking our way through the country.
Finally, and perhaps its deepest connection, it brought back that feeling of anxiety and sorrow over losing great times. I’m reminded how, whenever I go on vacation to a beloved locale, I’m nearly paralyzed. I dread saying goodbye to good times. I would almost rather avoid something deep and meaningful because it doesn’t last. Saying goodbye is a soul-crushing experience, and it’s that final shot of Call Me By Your Name that brings it all home. The camera hangs on the actor’s face as he relives his own great times. I’m reminded of the closing moments of Martin Scorsese’s great The Age of Innocence where Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) considers visiting an older Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer). Instead, he choses to leave her flat, living with the memory. As Elmer Bernstein’s score swells, he walks slowly away, fading into the background.
It’s quietly devastating.
As most great loves – and great movies – are.
Call Me By Your Name is one of those great movies.