“Call Me by Your Name” has been on my radar for quite a long time, since its esteemed premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Queer cinema is something that excites me as a gay man, but also concerns me as we must keep the stories we tell in check, as to not sour the movement of progress towards real acceptance beyond a novel film or two. So when “Moonlight” took home the Oscar for Best Picture last year, even though it wasn’t my favorite film of 2016, I was incredibly excited that a queer film finally got the recognition it deserved. “Call Me by Your Name” was something that felt like it could feel more personal to me, one that could hit me where it hurts and not stop until I’m a mess on the floor. Many people I know experienced the same thing at the various film festivals the film premiered at, and with such a talented cast and crew about the film, there was a real sense of expectation with “Call Me by Your Name,” and then Oscar season came around and I honestly forgot about the film until it was time for me to actually see it. The break up of time that made me briefly forget of the film made me excited to see the film as my expectations had fallen a bit since its premiere.
And yet, here we are. Stone me in the own square. Write my name on every billboard. Shame my family for life…because “Call Me by Your Name” didn’t do it for me.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a translator (Amira Casar) vacationing in their summer home in Northern Italy in the early 1980s. His father brings on a graduate assistant during this summer in the form of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a confident, handsome All-American Boy who takes a liking to Elio. While they playfully resent each other at first, their connection soon reveals secrets beneath their surfaces, and soon find love in their initial frustration, in a world not looking to accept it.
Here’s the thing with “Call Me by Your Name:” It’s fine. There’s nothing poorly made about it, but it’s also nothing inherently out there or new to myself either. When you seek to find queer cinema, you look in many unseen places for films to cover it, so when a mainstream film like “Call Me by Your Name” comes along, I want to find something new in it. Sure, the film is a rare foray for many high-up stars to line up a film about queer romance, but in the grand scheme of queer cinema, it’s simply covering bases already hit before. That being said, I can see how heavily this film hits for those not ever exposed to a story like this, because it is a heartbreaking reality to many different facets of queer people, but when you just hit that baseline, that still doesn’t leave me inherently impressed.
The cast is all really good here, with Hammer and Stuhlbarg stealing the show in a battle for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (which they will both lose). Chalamet is good too, but there’s a sort of distance in his performance that doesn’t always line up with everything that I’m meant to be convinced by. That being said, he is incredibly expressive and commits to the role very well, but Best Actor Oscar material? Nope. Still, the cast plays well together and there is chemistry between the two leads, I just found that Hammer carried a lot of the relationship’s connective tissues, while Chalamet just let it stand.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the film is a beautiful travelogue of Northern Italy. Granted, it’s obviously not just that, but the way in which the scenery is directed here is one of the best parts of the film. The way in which the characters move in and out of the ancient statues and beautiful buildings in constructing their own narrative is really impressive. That being said, I often didn’t connect with the level of intimacy portrayed in the film. There’s a sort of distance that separates the viewer from Elio and Oliver, something that feels safe in execution, but keeps me from fully investing myself into what the film is trying to sell. It’s attractive and Guadagnino knows his craft inside and out, but the film feels oddly neutered at some key points, which just makes its higher moments feel more bittersweet.
And I think therein lies “Call Me by Your Name’s” biggest downfall: it never does anything daring. Of course, not every film has to be a Gaspar Noé film, but I do wish that Guadagnino had shown off a bit more of his flair that we’ve gotten to know in his previous films a bit here. The distance and implicitness of the film makes it oddly hard to connect with. After watching the film a first time, I thought that a second go round and some time would bring me around to it, but it actually brought the film down for me as I began to notice its problems heavier. Queer identities and in turn, queer cinema has always had a daring edge to it, whether it be in extremities or not, there’s a certain amount of intimacy that has to come in telling a queer story. People might simply remember “Blue is the Warmest Color” because of its NC-17 rating from its explicit sex scenes, but those scenes provided such a heightened sense of intimacy and daringness that it made the following two hours after the sex scene so much more bruising and crushing. There’s no edge or dare of the sort here, and it leaves the end product feeling somewhat empty. It’s a beautiful, well-crafted house with no furniture to make it a home.
I wanted to like “Call Me by Your Name” so badly, but there was an emotional rift that kept me from engaging myself in the film the way that I want to. Call me a bitter queen who holds queer love stories to higher standards, but I simply find a “coming-of-age” story of a white gay kid tiring after a while. I never found the characters particularly likable, outside of Stuhlbarg’s Mr. Perlman, nor did I really connect with the love story at hand. It’s a film that is meticulous in taking its time to find its footing, but never really finding it from my perspective. I know I am in the great minority here, to which I am content with, but if I want to see queer cinema strive, I’m going to hold films that don’t fit the entire bill accountable. It’s well-made and atmospheric to a fault, it just never hit any sort of thematic or emotional resonance that I haven’t felt in other queer romances long before this one.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” is on Netflix. Go watch that to be emotionally destroyed instead.
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire du Bois.
Runtime: 132 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content, nudity and some language.
Now playing at select Charlotte-area theaters.
Sony Pictures Classics presents, in association with Memento Films International and RT Features, in association with M.Y.R.A. Entertainment, a Frenesy Film, La Cinéfacture co-production, in association with Morato Pane S.P.A., Faram 1957 S.P.A., Armando de Angelis S.R.I. persiant to the tax credit rules, in association with Water’s End Productions, a film by Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name”