Sunday, 31 December 2017

Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)



www.thegaia.org
The plot: While living with his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) in Italy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) strikes up a friendship with Oliver (Armie Hammer), an archaeology graduate who Elio’s father is helping with his academics. However, as Elio continues his relationship with his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel), he discovers that he has certain… feelings towards Oliver. He begins to explore these feelings with Oliver, whom reciprocates, but just how long can this affair last?





I feel kind of bad highlighting Chalamet as far as acting ability; mainly, because it doesn’t even seem like he is acting. Watching him embody so much of the cautious but still intrigued side of first love is staggering, and his chemistry with the rest of the cast is so solid that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if it was revealed that the core romance of the story actually happened. Opposite him, we have Hammer, who… I don’t usually get into this line of discussion with actors in film, but fuck, Hammer is gorgeous. His very photogenic presence on screen combined with how he imbues the role with such a zeal for what life has to offer is embarrassingly sexy, and he and Chalamet make one of the cutest on-screen couples I’ve seen all year. Having seen Hammer either flounder or just plain fail to make an impression in other films, I genuinely never would have expected this kind of reaction. Not that I’m complaining, of course.

It seems like, with every new performance I see from him, Stuhlbarg only impresses me more and more each time. Along with following our leads in just how naturally he plays the role of the endearingly supportive father, he manages to deliver the film’s coda with such underplayed sincerity that the audience should expect a sudden urge to weep intensely. Casar doesn’t bring as much intense emotional strength as the main cast, but her shows of quiet knowing of what’s going on around her through a few choice movements ends up adding a lot to this film’s overall approach to matters of the heart. She’s aware but not actively drawing attention to it. And then Garrel as Elio’s girlfriend rounds it off with rather comparable chemistry with Chalamet that he has with Hammer, the sweetness of which adds even more texture to what is a rather unfiltered depiction of love.

I feel the need to address something before getting into the rest of the film. Given my soapboxing regarding the latest Woody Allen film, and this being a story about a 17-year-old falling in love with a much older man, there’s something niggling at me that says I shouldn’t approve of this. And indeed, some other critics have found issue with it as well, with negative takes ranging from troubling to an example of grooming to being comparable to Harvey bloody Weinstein. I would normally bring up cultural differences, like the varying ages of consent between different countries (In Italy, it’s 14; here in Australia, it’s 16; and in the United States, it ranges from 16 to 18 depending on state), but that feels kind of pointless when the film actively tries to blur cultural lines this much. It’s a melange of artistic and cultural interpretations of love and humanity in general, with French, Italian and American sensibilities all thrown in together with an avid appreciation for sculpture, music and writing.

And yet, even with all the talk about ancient architecture and romantic love and patronage of the arts, this film is remarkably unpretentious. It may indulge in ruminations along those lines, but at its core, this is a love story in the purest sense of the term. The beautiful Italian landscape, tinged to perfection with summertime glee through DOP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s frequently asymmetrical framing and the vibrant colour palette it captures, sets a perfect backdrop for a truly disarming look at first love. The romantic scenes contain just the right amounts of tenderness, quiet and a certain timid awkwardness to make them feel real, aided further by how natural the actors are in those positions. It avoids being obnoxiously loud or needlessly graphic, sticking solely to genuine intimacy to make the physical love mirror the emotional love present in most of the film. Well… mostly, it isn’t graphic. Without getting into spoilers, I’m a bit torn between making a joke about tasting forbidden fruit, or a joke about this film making me hungry for peaches and cream. In either case, even when the film gets down and dirty, it still adds to that sense of sensuality that the rest of the film builds up.

This is going to seem like a rather minor point next to how warm and inviting this entire film is, but hear me out. At one point in the film, an older gay couple arrives to visit Elio's family. In a conversation between Elio and his father, the word “gay” is said. As far as I can recall, this is the only time that word is used, most definitely not in regards to Elio and Oliver’s budding relationship. This seems a bit odd (again, provided I didn’t just blank over other instances in the script) but then consider how the film treats the main relationships of the story, specifically Elio/Oliver and Elio/Marzia. With how both male and female partners are brought up and shown in connection to both Elio and Oliver, the film never gives the sense that these are just token gestures from two closeted men. Instead, it simply presents them as instances of romantic attachment, for however long they respectively last. Even when the dialogue imparts titbits about secrecy and what it says about those carrying secrets, it comes across less as shame and more as a veneer for those still trying to understand their own feelings.

This is where the film’s approach to depicting romance goes from endearing into a surprising amount of depth. Quick, think of a mainstream example of a character coming out as gay in a film or a TV show. It probably involves breaking the news to a partner of the opposite sex, as if that prior relationship was just a phase before the “real” identity makes itself known. Now, try and remember the last time you saw an openly bisexual character on film or TV. Most likely, they were characterized as being overtly promiscuous, because admitting to being attracted to both sexes clearly means that they will fuck anything with a working set of genitals. Except that’s not how love works. As much as semantics arguments can make explaining affection for more than one gender a little difficult (google “bisexual vs. pansexual” and watch people lose their goddamn minds), the mind doesn’t really think along those lines. Love is love and no one specific tryst loses any relevancy in the grander scheme of a person’s sexual history. It’s just another step in a longer journey, and through a rather haunting final shot of Elio, we see how much pain and confusion and joy and rapture that journey can involve.

All in all, this film leaves me with a very similar feeling to when I watched Moonlight earlier in the year. Not the same sense of heaviness that felt like I had to wade through an internal swamp to articulate what I actually felt, but that feeling that I’ve witnessed a genuine portrayal of romance between two men; this is rarer than it should be. The acting is stellar, with Chalamet and Hammer being absolute gold as the main couple, the visuals bring a lot of natural beauty out of the stunning summertime setting, and the writing not only captures that wide-eyed wonder of young love but also shows an understanding of pure human intimacy unlike way too many modern romance films. As someone who has been dealing with conflicting impressions of what human sexuality actually is and where I stand within it, I feel a strangely deep affection for this film. I genuinely feel like I’ve learned something that I needed to possess in that regard from watching this.

It ranks higher than It, as the sense of goodwill this generates is more acute and actually rather enlightening in a very personal way. I honestly haven't connected this closely with a gay cinematic romance before, an experience I’m very thankful to the filmmakers for. However, as endearing as this is to my heart of hearts, I think the space in there for romance isn’t as big as the space for all things cinema. As such, this ranks just below The Disaster Artist, a showing of love for cult cinema that rang even closer to me than this did.

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