Saturday, February 10, 2018

Call Me by Your Name

17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending another eventless summer in Cremona with his parents and his French girlfriend. His father, an archaeology professor, invites a PhD student to help him with his academic research while on holiday at the family’s country home. This year that academic assistant happens to be Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 20-something-year-old head-turner whose aloofness the teenager dismisses as sheer American arrogance. With their personalities being almost polar opposites, Elio's resentment towards their visitor intensifies by the day, but inexplicably so does his attraction to him. As secret admiration is confessed and feelings are reciprocated, the two are faced with the realization that summer eventually has to come to an end.

At first there really isn’t anything extraordinary about Chalamet’s acting. Any other Hollywood newbie could have given the role justice. But there is just something about the way his eyes water that exudes a sense of sincerity, the subtle type that makes everything feel more genuine. Perhaps that’s what prompted award-giving bodies to nominate him left and right? It’s not as if he does not deserve it, though. As the film progresses you don’t see the actor anymore, but rather the teenager you and I and everyone else once was, dealing with that first heartbreak.

The decision to focus the camera on his face while the end credits roll could have easily been a disaster of Gwen Stefani – Used to Love You music video proportions. Instead, we get treated to a concise summary of the entire narrative through his facial expressions. The build-up of tears leading to the first drop effectively summarizes the heartache he is experiencing. His mouth’s indecision whether to whimper or to grin reflects the difficulty he’s facing in processing his new reality, while the trembling shoulders are a clear manifestation of the inner struggle tearing him apart. A quick smile eventually finds its way to his lips in all the commotion, leading you to think that at that very moment a flash of all the good memories they had together suddenly came back as some form of consolation. All of this occur while the table behind him is being set for dinner, a metaphor reminding you that life has no pause button. It goes on, as usual.

But the most heart-breaking scene is that one where he phones his Mom from Bergamo, as well as the deafening silence in the car that follows it, culminating in restrained sobs. Despite the scene being devoid of words, you witness a heartfelt conversation: a son narrating his sorrow; a mother acknowledging his pain. Later on we hear his father share some nuggets of wisdom about love and rare connections, which, although a bit gimmicky, is simply as earnest as it is beautifully-worded, so honest that it hurts.

This is, perhaps, the reason why this film hits you the way it does. Not just another gay movie. Not just another summer fling. More than anything else, it tackles empathy, that support system that we all share as human beings. What Elio and Oliver had can be described as passion but within his inner circle, his family, it’s all about pure compassion. In this life, you need a healthy mix of both.

And don’t get me started with all the code-switching going on between English, French, and Italian. Why, hello, Perlman family. Can I adopt all three of you? As for the setting, you have to ask why a lot of romantic comedies and fling narratives love Italy as their location. For some it’s because they have nothing new to offer, so just let the country’s beauty take their breath away to forget all the loopholes, right? Lombardy’s Crema is a quaint little town alright, but it does not undermine the story in any way. It complements the soundtrack so well, creating a memorable backdrop that is neither boring nor attention-grabbing, but rather perfect for a lackluster summer that just got a little bit more interesting.

Oh, Summer Fling, do we not love thee? What makes Call Me by Your Name such a beautiful and emotional two-hour ride is how the material, in itself, represents that fleeting romance most people have had or dream of having. You don’t want it to end, but the certainty that it will makes it all the more unforgettable, enticing, and downright cruel. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a similar experience, whichever season it was, or how old you were when it happened. There is no escape. This film will bring you back. The emotions will return. The memories will overwhelm. Don’t say I didn't warn you.

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