By Noel Vera
Call Me By Your Name
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
AND WHAT of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, his adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel (from a screenplay by James Ivory)? I mean, two beautiful men, an Italian villa, a sun-drenched summer spent in Lombardy, Italy: What’s not to like?
Guadagnino and Ivory did reportedly make changes — stripped away the novel’s framing device where Elio (Timothee Chalamet) recalls his attraction for Oliver (Armie Hammer) from a vantage point of some decades later, so as to focus (or so Guadagnino says) on the “now”; he also dialed down the eroticism in Aciman’s text. “It was important to me to create this powerful universality” he explained to the Hollywood Reporter.
The director may have a point: I can imagine a more faithfully written Call Me with an elderly narrator piping in at every other moment… no. Just no. On the printed page there’s room for this kind of complexity; on the film screen it’s possibly an invitation to the worst kind of bathos, or unintended laughter. As it is we thrill to the mystery of the “now”: What does Oliver mean when he rubs Elio’s back? How aware is Elio of his own sexuality? What does Elio’s father Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) know about their budding possibly mutual attraction and when did he know it?
The eroticism is a more troubling issue: it is possible to shoot a gay love scene, I submit, that appeals to folks of any orientation (I’m thinking of breathlessly erotic opening to Wong Kar Wei’s Happy Together) so isn’t Guadagnino’s attempt at “universality” a copout?
The film is a hit, those who object to the lack of explicitness an apparently invisible minority so maybe we’re wrong and everyone else right. Maybe.
Perhaps the knottiest change wrought on the book are the relative ages of the would-be lovers: Elio in the book and on the big screen is 17 (Chalamet for the record was 20 at the time of shooting), Oliver in the book is 24 on the big screen looks an obvious 29 — which may strike audience in a particular (not exactly good) manner. Half a dozen ways to justify that — for one the age of consent in Italy is 14 — but Guadagnino does raise an issue that could have been easily sidestepped with more faithful casting.
That said, the best argument in favor of the filmmaker’s choice is the actor himself. Hammer has not bothered to hide his Nordic male beauty throughout his career, often uses it to interesting ends — lampooning the Winklevoss twins (both of ’em) in David Fincher’s The Social Network; literally playing lapdog to an evil queen in Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror; slyly subverting the straightness of straightshooting heroes in The Lone Ranger. Hammer is a smart, thoughtful presence onscreen, and his intelligence helps gild his handsomeness, give it an intriguing reserve, spiked with an “I don’t give a damn” arrogance; if I were closed off from the world, all wrapped up in adolescent angst, yes, I could do worse than respond to a shoulder rub from Armie Hammer.
The director himself shoots in a leisurely understated fashion that recalls Eric Rohmer’s (by way of Nestor Almendros’) brilliant Mediterranean countrysides; if there’s a marked difference it’s that Rohmer dawdled with his characters, slowing the plot to a crawl* to get to know his people better; Guadagnino seems to prefer to keep the plot moving at a brisker pace (I know, I know, it clocks in at two hours 12 but go watch a Rohmer film — most run a little over or a little under 100 minutes — and see what I mean) at the expense of knowing who these people are, what they are thinking, why they might fall in love. Rohmer was a master, in effect, at peering past people’s surfaces to suggest their knotty, richly textured interior lives — or even if they’re shallow and have no interior lives, to suggest that we might find them interesting anyway.
Perhaps Guadagnino’s best moment (Skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) comes when Elio and Oliver wander into a town piazza; walk up to the railings of a World War I memorial and separate, Oliver wandering behind the monument while Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera follows Elio. Elio intimates “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” “Why are you telling me this?” “Because I wanted you to know.” The boy leans against the railing as if in despair; before him lies a great bronze eagle splayed out as if dead. He pushes forward, his hand anchored to the railing as if it were his only hope: “Because I wanted you to know,” he says over and over again. He looks up and so does the camera: looming over the eagle is a harsh crag and atop this crag stands a World War I soldier with rock held above his head, about to crush the eagle’s skull. Moment of triumph or defeat? For the soldier or Oliver or Elio? All captured in a single fluid shot, Sufjan Stevens’ piano murmuring alongside.
Of course Rohmer would probably not have done anything as audacious as that long tracking shot, would probably not have used so lushly romantic a score. He might have achieved all those effects by simpler, more elegant means, without once calling attention to his camerawork or editing — but that’s why Guadagnino admits to admiring Rohmer, not the other way around.
* I said Rohmer likes to “slow his plot to a crawl” but that doesn’t mean his films are uninvolving — The Green Ray, I submit, has one of the most thrilling finales in all of cinema.
MTRCB Rating: R-16