Let me start by reviewing my track record with Guadagnino:
My reaction to I Am Love was, I guess, not dissimilar to Italiano’s, though I put it in far more positive terms than he: I thought Guadagnino showed all the gifts to make a major film – especially an incredibly sensual eye -- but he didn’t have a story that measured up to his talents, which made the whole thing feel a bit empty at the core.
Apparently I’m the only one here who didn’t hate A Bigger Splash. I thought the film’s first half was mesmerizing – again, I felt all my senses engaged in a visceral way. But the story took a turn into melodrama for which I felt utterly unprepared. I looked It up, and the Italian film upon which it’s based was listed as crime thriller, which I guess makes sense -- but is definitely not what the first hour of A Bigger Splash promised. So, for the second time, I felt Guadagnino’s plotting had failed to measure up to his film-making abilities. But I still couldn’t ignore how those abilities engaged me, made me await his next effort.
Thus, during this near-year I’ve been hearing Call Me by Your Name so highly praised, I’ve assumed that he’d finally found the perfect story to marry to his outsized talent, and created the movie I’d hoped he could make. But that’s not what I found when I saw it. I’m not saying none of his talent is on display – the foods and fruits (even beyond the notorious peach) are so vivid you can almost taste them, and the lazy summer air can be felt from the screen. In terms of atmosphere, the film is a great success. But I’d say it’s a quiet success. This film is less robust, more limited than I’d expected; the work of someone with a different, simpler sort of talent. Perhaps it’s because I just watched the film again in the past six months (after many years), but I found myself reminded here of Claire’s Knee – another movie about summertime in the European countryside, with hormonal late teens being observed by their elders. Claire’s Knee is a good movie, but a delicate one, and I’d put much of Call Me by Your Name into the same category. It’s a small story about an event in some ways mundane – a burgeoning love, albeit a same-sex one. The relationship is explored sensitively and fully, and the film is fleshed out with novelistic detail. But the story never hits a plot crescendo – never becomes a bigger/grander one. It’s just the story of that relationship. Which is not nothing, but it’s less than what I thought Guadagnino would provide.
Does this make the film a disappointment? Well, I have to say I left the theatre thinking, “I wasn’t wowed” – though I liked many things about the film, it wasn’t that grand work I’d hoped for, nor the one I thought I’d been promised. But I have to add that the film has stuck with me, resonated; that there are individual elements and moments in it I truly love; and that it did accumulate power into the last reel, up to and including the final moment. Scenes like the coming-out-while-walking-around-the-fountain work beautifully, both verbally and visually. Incidental characters (which is almost everyone beyond Elio and Oliver) contribute in tiny but precise ways. And the film builds to a climax shattering despite being relatively quiet. It’s a not inconsiderable piece of work.
One element about which I have no reservation is the Timothee Chalamet performance. Having seen Chalamet in Lady Bird, I expected a variation on the same character – a slightly arrogant, educated-and-proud-to-flaunt-it kid. But right from the start he offered something very different – a smart kid but one who’s deeply aware of and pained by how little he knows in certain areas. I felt like I could feel his nerve endings – not just in his understandably awkward initial scenes with Oliver, but in other areas, like his inability to apologize to Marzia, when he knows he’s betrayed her in precisely the ways she feared and feels horrible about it. Every moment of the performance felt fully vivid to me; his adolescent insecurities were almost palpable. And then he took the performance a step further forward, with his collapse into inconsolable sobbing in his mother’s car -- a scene of such loss of control I think it bears comparison to Hanks’ emotional breakdown at the end of Captain Phillips. And even after THAT, he gave us that final shot, where he conveyed every possible feeling/memory he had about the affair, one after the other, heartbreak and remembered joy in succession – summing up for us the entire journey he took over the course of the film. Truly breathtaking work – easily the best performance by an actor this year.
I still don’t know if I think Armie Hammer is an actor or an 8x10 glossy. He’s certainly right enough for the role of Oliver – he has to be the god-like creature who’d awaken all this in Elio – and he’s not bad in any way. But I can’t say I felt he gave a definitive performance. More like he filled the role perfectly well.
Michael Stuhlbarg, on the other hand… For most of the film, I’d thought, well, typical Stuhlbarg: contribute one little honest moment after another, but stay in the background and let others take focus. Even in those tiny gestures, he created a full character – a slightly awkward, borderline silly man (his aping of Oliver’s “Later” is close to cringe-worthy) with a stodgy but pleasing moral bearing (his lecture to Elio, about not making fun of Sonny and Cher, borders on stuffy, but you admire his conviction). Then, though, he gets the scene he’s long deserved, that beautifully written speech that shows us his love for his son, his fully humane life-outlook, but also, barely tamped down, his envy and regret over his own time having passed in disappointment. I know Stuhlbarg keeps missing nominations that Hammer’s getting, and maybe that’ll keep happening. But one thing about the Academy’s fabled older-skewing demographic: when they hear Stuhlbarg speak about how one day the body gets so old that no one wants to look at it, let alone get close to it…I think it’ll get them where they live. And they might come through for him.
So…what’s my bottom line? It’s a movie to which I’ve obviously given a good deal of thought. I guess you could say I’m ambivalent about it…but I think in a good way. Let’s say I rarely have this much enthusiasm about a movie that disappointed me. It’s obviously something to be seen.