Thursday, 21 December 2017

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

I'm struggling with how much Call Me By Your Name moved me and upset me and thrilled me and disappointed me. After hearing quite a bit about both the film and the book on which it is based, perhaps preperceptions got in the way. The film ended up being a lot of what I expected and quite a bit that I didn't. I am still not sure what to make of it as it took me through a range of feelings.

To whom do queer stories belong? Can a straight man write a book about queer male awakenings, and can a straight man direct a movie about that book starring two straight men? Can the passion explored there feel authentic? Can that straight male gaze capture something honest about queer male love/lust/emotions? I'm not sure Call Me By Your Name answers these questions, as, for me, it left much of the answers ambiguous.

Call Me By Your Name is very much about the intersection of connection and emotion with lust and desire. It is not a romance that is without a powerful physicality. So many of our "first love" stories seek a purity which eschews sexual awakening as if there is something more noble without our physical response to other people. But that's not the case here and I appreciated the film's attempt to build a sexual tension, an adolescent yearning. Bodies and sex are, in the pastoral landscape of Italy, ubiquitous. But in that landscape, in that ubiquity, they also become a bit sterile. Despite seeing skin and muscles and hair, the energy of that desire is somewhat lacking, almost removed. It is almost as if Call Me By Your Name is afraid of the story it is telling. It speaks to the danger of feeling of lusting or loving, yet doesn't take the risks of that feeling.

The best example of this for me was how the film builds for about an hour towards the main characters' first physical contact, and then the camera pans away, awkwardly, and self-consciously as if all of the time the camera spent lingering on their bodies, it was now too afraid to embrace the union of those bodies. The film had done this incredible job of building anticipation for this moment, then when the time comes so much of the physical intimacy is muted, pushed to the side. When we do see sex between characters it is brief and often shrouded in shame. The passion of the characters is centered around their physicality, it's not a chaste romance. So the way the film pulls out feels not quite right?

Yet then there are moments of such pure emotional intensity, such as a conversation between Elio and his father, which are so rich, so moving, they brought me to tears. Gay screenwriter James Ivory finds the connection between these lovers and it comes through so painfully. Another moment like this is when lead actor Timothee Chalamet, as he is informed by his lover that he may be getting married, sits on the phone listening with so much intensity its like the world is ending. It's all just a scene sitting on the phone but Chalamet is remarkable in this moment, but in some ways it is a moment the film doesn't earn. After the lovers' first lovemaking they commit their forbidden connection by trading names to call each other by. But it feels almost too soon for such a tender moment, like they hadn't quite got there yet.

So there are times when I felt the film was denying the feelings it was exploring, but there were other times when it was so raw and present and real. For much of the film I wasn't buying the love the leads were pantomiming, despite the gloriously filmed scenes. Director Luca Guadagnino has shot a gorgeous film which is hard not to stare at, not just due to the unmistakable beauty of the men he has cast (and ogles) but his loving, tender approach, and the Italian setting, almost dreamlike, like the relationship. But then there would be beautiful little moments when my heart would break, or when I'd feel intense passion, or betrayal.

I loved the way Call Me By Your Name struggles with the ambiguity of what this relationship means for each of its leads, that perhaps there is something incongruous about it. Yet the film handles this ambiguity a bit haphazardly, once again not quite capturing it cohesively. It's not just out of grasp in an elusive, mysterious way, but in a way that feels disconnected at times, hitting the target with intensity occasionally, but often missing the mark.

In some ways Call Me By Your Name is a tremendous success. In others it feels like a let down. So at the end of Call Me By Your Name I sat confused about my feelings for the film, not sure what to make of how it all came together. There is much to appreciate and admire about Call Me By Your Name, but also a lot that is left to be desired. Still, if it isn't quite a masterpiece, it is a beautiful miss and one that will likely bring be back to wrestle with it more.

Call Me By Your Name
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Struhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: James Ivory

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