by REGGIE WOLTZ
The term ‘bildungsroman’ refers to the novelization of a coming-of-age tale. This typically involves character change in a sensitive person over the events of the story. These novels are commonplace in literature and multitudes of movies have portrayed the same archetype. Call Me by Your Name, although building on the format in a few ways, is a bildungsroman at heart.
The major departure from the usual coming-of-age story within Call Me by Your Name is its focus on building its protagonist through a relationship, rather than some kind of physical or philosophical journey. Instead of being inherently focused on establishing an identity for its main character, this movie seeks to delve into his emotions and bring them to the surface. And, in this endeavor, the film accomplishes its goal spectacularly.
A major strength of the movie is its presentation of images. Set in and around the Italian city of Crema in the 1980s, the camera holds just long enough on the natural beauty of the scenery and the impressive architecture of the mansion to evoke a sense of longing for being in such a place. This orchestrated nostalgia is coupled with the trajectory of the story, following the slow build and quick death of love, to transport viewers back to a time when they experienced the joy and pain of love themselves. This emotional potency is maintained through much of the film and is aided by another point of excellence, its character performances.
While it does not exactly have an ensemble cast, Call Me by Your Name contains some quietly great performances. The film’s supporting ladies, Amira Casar as the protagonist’s mother and Esther Garrel as his initial love interest, make the most of their screen time despite their lack of importance in the movie. Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the protagonist’s father, stands out for his effervescence and his pivotal final scene gives more than a modicum of meaning to a movie that sorely needs it (more on that later). Armie Hammer does a wonderful job of playing Oliver, an aloof but conflicted man struggling for self-control–even if the film does not pay much attention to the complexity of his character (more on that later, as well).
The crown jewel of Call Me by Your Name is, of course, Timothee Chalamet. The self-confidence in the young Elio Perlman, is unlike the protagonists of many a bildungsroman. However, instead of feeling unnatural, this characterization is a breath of fresh air. The film revolves around Elio as we don’t spend so much as a scene without seeing his face. Chalamet is up to the challenge that this presents as he slowly unveils a deep curiosity and sensuality as a result of Oliver’s presence. By the end of the film, everyone in the audience is caught in a deep sympathy for Elio, having felt as if they were in his shoes the whole time. While his character is not at all complex, Chalamet’s depiction of a boy learning more about himself is so open and honest that it doesn’t feel like acting at all.
If all that this movie wanted to be was a singular character study, this is where my review would end. The movie could have also cut out at least thirty minutes of its two hour plus runtime if that were the case. But Call Me by Your Name aims to be more than that. As its name implies, this is a film about more than one person. It is meant to be a film about love and the extraordinary magnetism that two people can have with each other. And it is this end that it fails to meet.
From the jump, the viewer sees everything through Elio’s eyes. This often means that our interpretation of Oliver is not straightforward as Elio goes about making sense of the stranger living in his house. While many movies would try to eventually contextualize Oliver’s actions with a perspective of his own, Call Me by Your Name never gets around to that. That raises many questions about Oliver’s character (especially considering the movie’s final reveal that Oliver was in a heterosexual relationship the whole time) and the possibly predatory nature of his attraction towards Elio. Considering how Elio changes from beginning to end, it might help to understand the force that caused these changes. Call Me by Your Name does not help us in this understanding, despite going out of its way to explain so many other things in Elio’s father’s speech at the end.
The conversation between Mr. Perlman and his son is centered on the idea of love and its revelatory powers. The paradox of this is that it is telling us what we already know: this is about love. In effect, the film spends so much time giving us Elio’s viewpoint so that we can assume what he was thinking, only to tell us in the end what we were supposed to be making of it all along. And yet, it keeps the biggest blind spot, Oliver’s intentions, out of view – thus leaving itself incomplete. Another result of this is that the audience has spent an extraordinary amount of time looking at dragged out perspective shots only to be given short answers in the end. Despite the problems that using exposition to explain the story may already impose on an ending, the fact that it fails to answer the important questions is both ineffective and renders much of the early scenes a complete waste of time.
As a coming-of-age tale, Call Me by Your Name works brilliantly. The humanness of its protagonist is undeniable and his development makes the film worthwhile. Together with its incredible images and score, that would make it a complete piece. As it is, however, this is a movie about love. Being that, the film is strenuously lopsided and unable to justify many of its dragged out scenes by its exposition-filled finale. But hey, at least this it made apricots cool again!
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