The following is a movie review that contains minor spoilers and human opinions. You have been warned.
Have you ever witnessed something so beautiful that you forget how bland it really is? Like a coat worn by Kate Middleton, a Jonathan Franzen novel, or a latte from a trendy coffee shop. That is the experience I got from watching the critically-acclaimed film Call Me By Your Name. A film that while beautiful in essence, was overshadowed by the lack of soul and development from its characters. In fact, only one character, Elio (in a breakthrough performance by Timothée Chalamet) was able to show any form of complexity and humanity. Wrapped in lavish cinematography, a grandeur score, and an overwhelming feeling of airy melancholy, the film ultimately fails to become the romantic/homoerotic masterpiece many are claiming it to be.
The film is set in 1983 Italy and recounts the story of Elio, a 17-year old musical prodigy with Italian American parents. His father is a professor who hires Oliver, an American graduate student in his twenties, to help him out with academic paperwork. Oliver and Elio, while complete polar opposites, end up spending much of their summer together. Elio has a girlfriend but begins to feel attracted to Oliver. When Elio vaguely shares these feelings with Oliver, he swiftly redirects the conversation elsewhere. When Elio goes in for the kiss, it is briefly encouraged and then rejected by Oliver. Elio’s infatuation is then revealed to be matched by Oliver, and their unrequited love becomes an abrupt and passionate summer romance. What follows is a recount of their lavish, romantic summer and the events that follow, with the occasional exceptional scene (I would say that you’ll never see a peach in the same light again, but thanks to emojis, the peach image has already been tarnished). The problem I had with the film lies within a script that has the protagonists display beautiful faces that project no voices. It is a film with a relentless insistence of making gorgeous stylistic choices in an effort to replace the lack of intimacy that it desperately needed. Sex scenes do not equate intimacy. And even if the script had been revised, Armie Hammer, while aesthetically perfect for the role, sucked the life out of every scene he was on.
After the film was over, I was left in awe of the cinematography, score, and Chalamet’s performance, but also, I was left drowning in questions. Had Oliver ever been with another man? Was this love or just lust for him? Is Oliver the first man Elio has been involved with? Was this the awakening of Elio’s sexual orientation? Was this a one-time thing? Were either of them completely sure of their sexual orientations? What were the parents thinking the whole time? Do academic accomplishments make one more tolerant? Was Italy a more accepting country than the U.S. at that time? Is a peach better than a pie?
I tend to over-analyze art. I accept the fact that maybe I’m simply overthinking it and not enjoying it for what it is. But I cannot help but to think of how emotionally-fullfiling adding more details would’ve made this film. There’s a scene where the lovers are in broad Italian daylight, they brush hands with each other and Oliver says, “I would kiss you if I could.” From that line we are assumed to interpret animosity against homosexual behavior in Italy. In another scene, Oliver finds out that Elio’s parents were aware and approving of their relationship to which he responds, “you’re so lucky; my father would have carted me off to a correctional facility.” From that line we are assumed to interpret an internal struggle Oliver has dealt with or at least considered, and maybe, a strained relationship with his father. Imagine the effect that would have been added by incorporating a few lines where they share their dreams, their hopes, their desires, their hesitations, or anything really. I am aware that the source material is an acclaimed novel that might have the same structure and approach to storytelling, but personally, this is what prevented me from fully buying what this film was selling.
“But how can you diss Armie Hammer’s performance when it has been praised and acknowledged by many?”, you might ask. His delivery was frozen. His emotions are non-existent. His enviable body, his beautiful face were both there, but his character wasn’t. Chalamet was able to turn his character into an artistic, troubled, bittersweet teenager with charm, emotion, and heart. He gave a quiet tour-de-force, which made Hammer’s weaknesses even more noticeable. The following is a bold statement, it might be considered backwards, it might create animosity, and I won’t be able to take it back, but Armie Hammer has been praised simply for being a straight, white male “courageously” portraying a (possibly) gay character. I can’t find another reason, other than privilege and the fragile idea of the “bravery” surrounding the portrayal of LGBTQIA+ characters. But that’s a story for another article.
While I applaud the inclusion of more LGBTQIA+ characters and stories, this was not such a case. Both characters are apparently heteroflexible but mainly hetero-leaning and just having a summer fling. Elio’s character seems to be more affected by the events, more inclined towards homosexuality, but it is unfair to assume. A couple more sentences in the script could’ve shifted this rhetoric. I don’t want characters to hold rainbow flags or scream out their sexual orientation from the top of a mountain, but I am ready for more depth and complexity. I crave for more humanity and diversity in the stories and characters I watch. I have never felt truly represented on-screen and I’m fully aware that it’s not the filmmakers’ responsibility. But think of that closeted teenage boy secretly watching an LGBTQIA+ movie in his basement. I want him to see complex, fully-formed, defined individuals who might help him realize he is not alone. I don’t want him to see a movie where the characters are not important, but the shock value of their relationship is. I want him to see more Brokeback Mountains, more Moonlights, more Carols, and less Call Me By Your Names.
I wanted to love Call Me By Your Name, and perhaps that was the problem. But the film turned out to be a problematic canvas of gorgeousness that made Timothée Chalamet a star in my book, but made me want to avoid Armie Hammer’s filmography at all costs.
2.5 out of 4