Love, From All Sides Now
by Loy Bernal Carlos
photos courtesy of Mongrel Media
“I like a slow burn,” Guadagnino explains. Says Chalamet: “It’s the universally relatable game of cat and mouse and push and pull that occurs between people that are attracted to one another but have suspicions and insecurities about whether the other holds the same level of attraction. They also have trepidations because they aren’t in a time period or a location that is accepting or encouraging of them having an intimate relationship.”
The filmmaker succeeds in making the story resonate as everyone’s story.
The longing to be side by side for the sake of it. Riding a bike. Sitting by the pool. Dancing, perhaps never with each other, but always aware of the other. Wishing to be sat next to each other on a ride somewhere. Wondering. Pondering. Unspoken feelings either dare not confess.
So they keep quiet. Or they dicsuss irrelevant things just to hear each other’s voices. On the surface they go on with their ordinary lives while something overwhelming is happening within. Time flies. Opportunities pass. “Why didn’t you tell me you like me,“ Elio laments to Oliver later. “We wasted so much time.”
Call Me By Your Name is poetry in motion. It is a brilliant exercise in subtlety and restraint. It is not a film for those who expect an epic, modern melodrama. It lacks the deafening silence and angst like that which permeated Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It is cerebral without being pretentious, more in the fashion of Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
It refuses to engage allegations of a perverted relationship between a teenager and someone much older. “I don’t want Call Me By Your Name to be perceived as a hyper-intellectualized opus,” says director Luca Guadagnino, “but as a tender love story that affects an audience in an uplifting way.” Unfortunately for the director, in a social media ruled world where everything is in your face and where almost nothing is left to be imagined, sometimes even the obvious has to be explained.
Although it has a handful of poignant erotic scenes, it handles sexuality as a glorious but complicated issue. Desire is revealed through symbolism. The loud, persistent thumping of window shutters being pummeled by the wind echoes the unyielding drumbeat of sexual desire. The refreshing summer rain signifies the dewy tenderness of young love. These are imageries that are possibly lost on some of today’s Google-everything audience. Where are the condoms and mint? Where’s the receipt?
Take “Play that music again”, a scene where Elio plays Bach’s Capriccio in B Flat Major Nr. 5 BWV 992 “Aria di Postiglione.” It signals the covert beginning of Oliver and Elio’s conversation about love through music. When the young virtuoso makes stylistic changes on the piano (first in the style of Liszt, then Busoni), Oliver gets impatient and walks away. Elio lures him quickly back by playing what he wanted to hear. Oliver’s message: I am interested. Elio’s response: I want to please you.
“Muscles are firm. Not a straight body in these statues. They are all curved, sometimes impossibly curved, so nonchalant, hence their ageless ambiguity…as if they are daring you to desire.”
Of course, critics of the film will find things to pick on. Some dismiss the casting as too pretty and unrealistic. They argue, “Who falls in love with someone who looks like the impossibly handsome Armie Hammer?” (His wife, perhaps? And whichever teenage girl or boy whom Armie knew growing up?) But Hollywood aside, anyone who has ever fallen head-over-heels for anyone probably thought at the time that their object of affection was a veritable Armie or Timothée or Farrah. (I highly suggest you do NOT look them up on Facebook now and burst that bubble!) For nowhere is ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ truer than in love. And when it happens, every love affair feels cinematic, and every lover a superstar.
Surprisingly some gay men, too–mostly those who have long been out, or who have never been with or have ever fallen for someone who isn’t out, or those who have forgotten what it was like to be a homosexual in the 1980s–suggest the romance or “chemistry” a bit lacking. Still others say the film departs from the book. Perhaps. Except the movie that plays in our minds when we read is entirely framed around the context that we ourselves create. It is our notion of what lies between the lines that define it. Thus, the particular perspective we bring is ours alone. Appreciation of any art, including films, is a potluck anyhow–emptiness, bitterness, or sweetness are things we bring to the party.
Certainly love, especially the forbidden kind, is a highly personal battle that is fought in many fronts. When viewed from different angles, it may not look the same at all. Thus what makes Call Me By Your Name an especially relatable masterpiece is that it lends importance not only to the dynamic between Oliver and Elio, but also to what is happening in the periphery. Depending on a viewer’s current place in life, the film can be just as much about parental love as it is about romance.
That noted, Armie Hammer is easily the most underappreciated. His portrayal requires Oliver to be distant, to be casual. He plays a closeted homosexual in 1983, the object of a boy’s affection–one who is old enough to understand the futility of pursuing a story that has the predictably painful ending of two broken hearts. More importantly, as a 24-year old Oliver is fully aware that a short six weeks of romance could potentially scar the boy permanently.
Hence, Oliver deflects Elio’s advances. He cautions the boy from even uttering, much less acting on, his feelings. As a precaution, the intern does a nightly disappearing act that the lad misinterprets. “Traitor,” Elio would mutter to himself, when Oliver arrives late one evening.
But eventually the mutual desire propels them into each other’s arms. Still, before finally relenting to engage physically, Oliver asks Elio, “Will this make you happy?” “Yes,” says the boy, without reservation.
The camera’s narrative perspective is of someone close to Elio. We seldom see scenes from Elio’s point of view., otherwise, we would see more of Oliver. Thus Hammer’s ability on screen to project Oliver’s full range of emotion and desire is limited to a glance, a smile, a grin, a look. He goes in and out of focus, and is almost always shot from a distance. Up close, he is frequently a player in a duet of ‘butter-and-pasta’ conversations.
Armie’s most dramatic scenes are confined to moments when Oliver is rendered speechless: holding a sobbing boy, in bed watching him sleep, on the train platform. Yet despite these limitations, Hammer shines as a skilled actor with a special talent for punctuating emotions without words through a subtle tightening of the jaw, a slight pursing of the lip or some facial muscle movement.
Don’t fault Hammer for his character’s detachment, blame 1983’s Texas-size closet. Because in rare occasions when the camera is fixed on him, his eyes express the full sentiment what Oliver wants to let loose. What detractors fail to give Hammer credit for is his appreciation of a crucial point in Oliver’s story: he never allows himself the freedom to let his feelings fully unravel.
Oh, Elio! Timothée Chalamet is mesmerizing from beginning to end. His breakthrough performance will be remembered as one of the greatest in the history of films. He is a virtuoso with an especially remarkable ability to access what his character is doing, thinking and/or feeling. Stuhlbarg describes it best, “Tim was a miracle in terms of his unpredictability. He was different every time he did things. You never knew what was going to happen when he was doing stuff, and that was really fun to watch.”
Chalamet’s delivery is impressively nuanced, not just for a young actor, but for any actor–period. In this film, he is simply flawless. There isn’t a single ill-managed gesture, look or tone. He grips you from the start and takes you on an unabated journey of youthful confusion and exploration.