Watched: 31 December
This awards season contender is a story of stuttering love involving a half-Italian, half-American teenager (Elio, 17, played by Timothée Chalamet) and an older American student (Oliver, 24, played by the very-much-not-24 Armie Hammer), set in Italy in the early 1980s – though unfortunately I didn’t quite connect with it as passionately as many of its fans have; by which I mean that I liked, rather than fell head-over-heels for, this film.
It’s based on André Aciman’s novel, which has been elegantly adapted for the screen by James Ivory, and director Luca Guadagnino has form with regard to tales of complicated romances in sun-kissed, idyllic southern European settings – to the point you can almost smell the olive groves and lemon trees that are dotted around the landscape in his films; his previous feature A Bigger Splash was set on the island of Lampedusa, while characters in 2009’s I Am Love sporadically left the city of Milan for passionate affairs in the surrounding countryside.
Most of the action takes place at the house owned by Elio’s parents, or the surrounding village, but there’s a brief excursion to Rome that jars a little, perhaps deliberately so – it certainly comes at a key point in the timeline of the romance. At the house, Elio’s mother (competently played by Amira Casar) does not get to affect the story too much, though his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) has more of an influence over the prevailing mood of the film, particularly during its standout latter stages. Their residence is large, and given that it’s summer the characters spend their evenings outside, enjoying convivial feasts that also feature friends and neighbours before Elio, Oliver and Elio’s girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) move on to local discos. It’s here – inhibitions and self-control removed by alcohol – that we begin to see the strength of Elio’s feelings for Oliver, whose stay with the family is only temporary; and perhaps there are early hints that the feeling is mutual. We also hear for the first time (though not the last) The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way – an uplifting 80s hit that Oliver seems to enjoy more than just about everyone else, and it courses through the film alongside a few notable Eurodisco hits and Sufjan Stevens’ brittle original score. Stevens has been Oscar nominated for his song Mystery Of Love, but Love My Way is absolutely the defining tune of this film, becoming a kind of rallying call for one young gay man, at least.
A love story stands or falls on the performances of its leads, and although I’m yet to make up my mind on Hammer (I suspect he is an actor with limitations, but good directors keep casting him and, in fairness, he is good here), the ace up the film’s sleeve is the performance by Chalamet, who is superb from his first scene until the very last one – an emotional gut punch which plays out rather well during the end credits. His Elio is a confident but bookish teenager, privately anxious (or perhaps simply hesitant) about revealing his own sexual identity, and experiencing certain feelings (I assume) for the first time as he negotiates that tricky first love. Elio is the beating heart of the film and a completely believable character, and I think Chalamet deserves all of the praise and awards season-related bunkum that he has come his way.
For some reason I feel the need to state my slight preference for A Bigger Splash; I just think there’s a little more to that piece than meets the eye, though undoubtedly it’s brasher and more attention-seeking than Call Me By Your Name. This more-celebrated effort is obviously very good, though, and is a very classy piece of work, for sure. (****)