London Film Festival Review: Call Me By Your Name

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61st BFI London Film Festival - Headline Galas, Strand Galas and Special PresentationsThe Pitch: “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite – that particular peach is but a detail.” — Pablo Picasso

The Review: I’ve been writing this blog for seven years now. I say writing, I used to churn out a thousand words of incisive wit every other day and now I spend most of my time talking about films on radio rather than writing on them here. Foolishly, because I’m clearly so good at committing to writing, I’d love to start a food blog at some point, having developed a love of cooking that finally matches my love of eating over the past twenty years. When I went to university twenty-five years ago my entire repertoire consisted of cottage pie with tinned mince, roast potatoes and a passable apple crumble. Now my love of cookery is almost as well travelled as my love of cinema: these days I’ll attempt food from almost as many cultures as those from which I sample films.

One particular fondness I’ve developed is for Italian cuisine. Forget sloppy spag bols with sauce out of a jar or last night’s reheated pizza, the best Italian food uses a handful of ingredients but makes sure they are of the highest quality. Clearly you can guess where I’m going with this food-based metaphor, but it’s a perfect fit for Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, an adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel. Originally due to be co-directed by James Ivory, famous for his British period dramas produced by Ismail Merchant, Ivory instead sold the script to Guadagnino to keep the financiers happy, and it’s allowed CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to retain a simple, pure focus.

The film is built around two central performances, both of which are revelatory in their own ways. Timothée Chalamet has so far had a career of small parts, including MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN and INTERSTELLAR, while Armie Hammer is best known for his literally two-faced role in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and for being the unfortunate sidekick in the lead role in the underrated THE LONE RANGER. Here, Chalamet is teenager Elio, spending the summer with his family at their Lombardy villa but displaced from his bedroom by Hammer’s visiting student Oliver. Elio is immediately in awe of the standoffish Oliver, but doesn’t know how to process his initial feelings and finds different outlets for his frustrations – including a stunted flirtation with local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel) – before his and Oliver’s facades gradually lower.

It’s difficult to know which of the two performances is better, but that’s a nice dilemma to have for any film. Chalamet is wiry and slippery, a buzz of teenage energy driven by a keen mind but with his musical talents the only outlet for his passion until Oliver’s arrival. Oliver, direct and abrupt almost to the point of insolence in Elio’s eyes, still has a magnetism that won’t let Elio’s gaze alone. It’s the beauty of the way that their relationship is developed, the occasional brush of human contact here, a knowing gaze there, every moment believable and compelling. The two unite over their common interests and their heritage, closeted Jews in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and first their minds and then their bodies are drawn together. Oliver’s cautiousness is understandable; Elio is only seventeen, and while mature in many ways childish in others, but as his adolescence flowers it’s nurtured comfortingly by Oliver’s gradually revealed warmth.

The warmth isn’t just in the performances of the two leads, but in everything that Guadagnino’s brought together. While his previous films such as I AM LOVE and A BIGGER SPLASH have certainly had moments of warmth and tenderness, they’ve often been mixed slightly more with brusqueness and cynicism. Here, Ivory’s script is a masterclass in human emotion, slowly peeling away the layers of the two leads and drawing you into their intimacy. It’s backed up by Guadagnino’s direction, but also by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, capturing the lushness of the Italian countryside and giving the film the feel of a faded memory of summers past, and by songs from Sufjan Stevens on the soundtrack. Even the Eighties setting of the film is layered on gracefully, with a Talking Heads T-shirt and a Walkman feeling redolent of the time but unobtrusive in the northern Italian landscape.

In a way, the film saves one of its greatest assets for last. Chekov’s Gun is a dramatic principle that you shouldn’t put a gun on the wall if you’re not going to fire it later, and it’s the parents (Amira Cassar and Michael Stuhlbarg) who observe for the majority of the film from the sidelines, occasionally giving dramatic impetus but mainly making us envious of summers in the countryside. But a climactic scene between Stuhlbarg and Chalamet raises the emotional intensity of the film to almost achingly beautiful levels, possibly giving us the first instance of Chekhov’s Stuhlbarg committed to film and hopefully not the last when he’s as good as he is here.

Even from our more enlightened 21st century position it feels strange that so few films still deal in non-heterosexual relationships without characters or the film ever sitting in judgement. For that alone CALL ME BY YOUR NAME should be applauded, but for the fact that it presents itself as one of the most realistic, tender and honest films about relationships and maturity ever made it should be cherished.

Why see it at the cinema: The best way to immerse yourself in the experience and to fully embrace the pleasures of Guadagnino’s stunning film are to sit in the largest, darkest room you can find, ideally one where the film is being projected onto the walls.

What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong sex, although there’s been much stronger on screen. Blue Is The Warmest Colour or 9 Songs this is not.

My cinema experience: The one particularly odd artistic choice made by Guadagnino was the sound of heavy drilling which he chose to add as a constant to the soundtrack. How did anyone ever relax in 1980’s Italy with all of that drilling going on? Took me a good ten minutes to realise that the drab, depressing surroundings of the Odeon Leicester Square had been supplemented by construction work elsewhere in Leicester Square. It didn’t seem to affect the general enjoyment of the assembled press and industry throng at the BFI press screening, as the film got a solid ovation at the end.

The Score: 10/10

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