Luca Guadagnino (2017)
Summer of ’42 territory – except that it’s the summer of ’83, ‘somewhere in northern Italy’ and the teenage protagonist’s first love is a gay love. Seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is the son of an American father and an Italian mother. The father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an academic; each summer, he and his wife Annella (Amira Casar) play host, at their Italian villa, to a doctoral student, who assists Professor Perlman in his research. Elio resents these six-week intrusions: he has to give up his room to the research assistant. This routine tension turns into something more complicated soon after the latest guest, Oliver (Armie Hammer), takes up temporary residence. Elio finds himself increasingly attracted to Oliver and their relationship becomes a sexual one. It culminates in the few days that they spend alone together in Bergamo, immediately before Oliver’s return home to the United States. As usual, the Perlmans return to the villa for their Christmas holiday. Oliver telephones to wish the family season’s greetings and to deliver glad tidings of his own: he and his girlfriend will marry in the coming year. Professor Perlman affably mentions to Oliver that the next research assistant has been chosen and that next summer ‘the he will be a she’.
It’s no surprise, after I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015), that Call Me by Your Name has a rich sensuous texture. Luca Guadagnino’s proven talent for capturing both the lulling and the provocative effects of Mediterranean sun and heat is strongly in evidence again. Even allowing that aestival languor is integral to the film’s atmosphere, however, Guadagnino takes a long time (130 minutes) to tell a slender story. That may not be an apt description of the source material, a 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman (an American). According to the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, not only is the book more sexually explicit than the film but Elio and Oliver meet again, years after their original summer of love. On screen Call Me by Your Name boasts a good deal of visual beauty (the DoP is Sayombhu Mukdee) and an emotionally effective soundtrack yet I found it tame. It’s winning (and will continue winning) plaudits largely for reasons of cultural snobbery and political correctness.
Soon after arriving at the villa, Oliver asks Elio how he spends his time. The answer – ‘Read books, transcribe music, swim at the river, go out at night’ – nicely illustrates the cocktail of cerebral and sensual gratification that Guadagnino mixes. Conversation at the villa switches easily between English, French and Italian. The place is replete with good books, food and drink, and tasteful decor. Plenty of people will find this film appealing in large part because it reminds them of their own holidays in Italy. The screenplay is by James Ivory (with the director and Walter Fasano) – and Luca Guadagnino has revived what were, for many, the essential charms of Merchant-Ivory cinema. My favourite line in Ivory’s script – the opener to a short sequence that’s unintentionally funny throughout – was Annella Perlman’s question to her husband, ‘Darling, have you seen my Heptaméron?’ Once the book is in her hands, she regrets that she could get hold only of a German translation (which seems surprising, even allowing that the story is set in the pre-Amazon age). Mother, father and son intertwine on the sofa, as Annella starts to read aloud from the book. The supposedly relaxed, casual family group looks to be posing for a portrait.
The Heptaméron scene ends, as it began, with a question – from the Marguerite de Navarre lines spoken by Annella, ‘Is it better to speak or die?’ This, according to David Ehrlich’s Indiewire review of Call Me by Your Name when it premiered at this year’s Sundance, is not just the ‘core question’ of Guadagnino’s film but ‘an idea at the heart of all queer narratives … [and has] been especially present in queer cinema, where muteness and survival are often the most bittersweet bedfellows’. The second part of Ehrlich’s assertion might seem hard to argue with yet Call Me by Your Name somewhat contradicts it. At the start of the film, and until the point at which he and Oliver go to bed together, Elio has a girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel); he seems surprised and troubled by his feelings for Oliver. When Elio nevertheless starts coming on strong, Oliver at first discourages him. What makes this unusual queer cinema, especially as a period piece, is that the two young men are more worried about the nature of their liaison than the older characters. A late-middle-aged homosexual couple comes for dinner at the villa (on the same night that Elio and Oliver first consummate their relationship) but Elio’s parents are not merely liberals of the some-of-our-best-friends-are-gay variety
Only late on in the story is it made quite clear that the professor and his wife know what’s going on between Elio and Oliver and don’t mind. In the meantime, though, Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory don’t build up any sense of parental suspicion or disapproval of their son’s friendship with their house guest. Unless I missed it, there’s next to no suggestion either of homophobia on the part of Elio’s contemporaries. (Marzia and another girl assume that Elio and Oliver are romantically available but that’s hardly the same thing – and isn’t wrong to the extent that both young men are, at least to some extent, bisexual.) The effect of this is to remind you there’s a good reason why queer narratives have traditionally focused on opposition to gay love. The Perlman parents’ commendably enlightened attitude isn’t conducive to dramatic tension or excitement. Sex between consenting adults of the same sex was legalised in Italy in the late nineteenth century and Elio is comfortably above the age of consent: Oliver’s initial resistance to his overtures therefore has less to do with homosexuality – or even with Oliver’s fiancée stateside – than with unease that he’s abusing his position in the Perlmans’ household. Elio and Oliver exchange more significant glances than they do significant words. (The title phrase – Oliver whispers to Elio, ‘Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine’ – is no more than catchy.) The protagonists may be possessed by the love that traditionally dare not speak its name on screen but the film is light on their reasons for reticence.
All the actors are good (one’s come to expect that too in a Guadagnino picture). I don’t remember seeing Timothée Chalamet before, though I must have done: he was the teenage version of Casey Affleck’s character in Interstellar (a role presumably smaller than Affleck’s, which itself wasn’t large). Chalamet was twenty at the time Call Me by Your Name was being made but is willowy enough to pass for younger. He’s asked to carry a lot of screen time on his far from broad shoulders, and does it well, even if he’s not greatly varied. The director serves him badly at the very end. The film concludes with Elio in close-up, as he absorbs Oliver’s Christmas phone call. Guadagnino puts up the closing credits while still holding the camera on Chalamet. His face moves impressively from a stricken expression to a mysteriously determined one but some people, even at the London Film Festival, got up to leave as soon as they saw the credits. These can’t fail to be distracting however much you focus on Chalamet’s face. As the slippery Oliver, Armie Hammer acts more crisply than I’ve seen him do before (at least since The Social Network (2010)). Esther Garrel is touching as Marzia. But the youngsters, although highly photogenic (unbeautiful bodies need not apply for roles in Guadagnino movies), are thin fare. A theme such as Elio’s and Oliver’s shared Jewish heritage, for all its implied significance, doesn’t add up to much. Annella Perlman is an underwritten character. Thanks to her husband’s relative complexity and Michael Stuhlbarg’s acute and sympathetic playing, Professor Perlman upstages everyone.
The professor’s scholarship, unlike the cultural accoutrements of the villa, adds up to something more than agreeable, tony background. He’s an expert in archaeology and art history – the dual specialty that neatly allows for the discovery of things long-buried and the appreciation of highly relevant artefacts excavated from the Mediterranean. He describes this Hellenic male statuary to Oliver as follows:
‘Muscles are firm. There’s not a straight body in these statues. They’re all curved – sometimes impossibly curved. And so nonchalant – hence their ageless ambiguity. As if they’re daring you to desire them.’
This explicit analysis of physical beauty is twinned with a longer, more ambiguous speech delivered near the end of the film, shortly after the dejected Elio has returned to the villa alone, after his short stay with Oliver in Bergamo. Professor Perlman speaks of his son’s recent relationship in terms that are approving, not to say wistful. The strong implication is that the father envies what Elio has had with Oliver. Since he’s not in a position to know the quality of either the emotions or the physical intimacy his son has experienced, it’s hard not to infer that the sadly smiling professor is expressing regret that he never acted on his own homosexual feelings. These have been hinted at – not only in Perlman’s admiration of the statues but also in his interactions with his wife, which are affable rather than physical. It seems to be his idea that Oliver should go to Bergamo to do some research on his behalf, and take Elio with him, before heading straight off back to America. All this makes Perlman’s mention of the gender of next year’s research assistant, in the concluding phone conversation with Oliver, as intriguing as his advice to Elio that ‘Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spots’. Luca Guadagnino has indicated that he doesn’t rule out the possibility of a sequel to the film. If it happens, he should make Professor Perlman the main character.
Perlman assures Elio in their tête à tête that Oliver is a ‘good man – so are you’. My immediate reaction to this mystifying remark was to want Elio to lighten up, channel Mae West and reply ‘Goodness had nothing to do with it’. Until he’s besotted with Oliver, Elio is little more than a moody, clever, unusually privileged teenager; the suave, well-mannered Oliver has a self-serving streak – he seems a bit of a creep. Of course the father loves his son but neither Elio nor Oliver has shown himself, for example, kind to others or courageous or even diligent. (Not surprisingly, Oliver doesn’t seem to get much work done during his stay.) Yet the professor’s glowing appraisal is consonant, I think, with why Call Me by Your Name will be overrated – in a way that the story of a heterosexual first-love story wouldn’t nowadays be. Their gayness seems to dignify Elio and Oliver in Professor Perlman’s eyes. By the same token, admiration for the film seems to be rooted in its being a gay love story, as if that in itself was ‘good’ – ie bold and progressive – even though there’s no substantial opposition to Elio’s and Oliver’s relationship, and the sex scenes are rationed and, for the most part, discreet. The peach episode – alone in his room, Elio pulls open the fruit, masturbates with and ejaculates into it; Oliver then comes in and eats the peach – is attracting particular comment because it’s so unusual in the film (and allows reviewers to make ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ jokes).
Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country looks very different from Call Me by Your Name – the weather is terrible and the sex more urgent. The films share an absence of homophobic hostility to the central relationship in the story; and the praise for Lee’s debut feature could also be down to automatic LGBT-movie genuflection on the part of critics. That praise is more deserved, though: the turmoil of Lee’s protagonist is more compelling than Elio Perlman’s ‘obsession’. To return to the starting point of this note: Guadagnino’s film has more in common with Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42. I don’t remember the latter in any detail – I’ve seen it only once, on its original release in 1971 – but I know I was bored by its shimmering, tasteful torpor. Michel Legrand’s famous theme brings that feeling back each time I hear it. Legrand’s score won an Oscar and Sufjan Stevens’ pretty music for Call Me by Your Name may do likewise: the ‘Mystery of Love’ melody is certainly hard to get out of your head. The film’s soundtrack as a whole is an atmospheric combination of classical (Adams, Bach, Ravel, Satie), 1980s pop tracks and Stevens’ original contributions – along with non-musical sounds of summer. Call Me by Your Name looks set to be in the running for a wider range of awards than Summer of ’42 was, including for acting and direction. There’s no doubting Luca Guadagnino’s ability to construct and impart rhythm to beguiling images. How original some of these are is another matter. During the Production Code era, Hollywood directors often used shots of waves crashing against rocks to signify what they couldn’t show. Guadagnino pulls the same stunt with Bergamasque alpine cataracts. In a film of today, this is luscious tautology.
10 October 2017