Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Don't Call Me By Your Name -- I'll Call YOU!

The smart money in this year’s Oscar race seems to be on either The Shape of Water or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s hard to say which has the better chance, but my guess is that voters of a more cynical bent will opt for Martin McDonagh’s bitter (yet fascinating) story of loss and retribution, while the optimists in the Academy will prefer Guillermo del Toro’s uplifting (yet bizarre) otherworldly love story. In del Toro’s telling, the love of a human woman and a sea creature certainly has an ethereal side. He deftly balances this, however, with a lot of real-world squalor and Cold War anxiety. That’s my problem with another of this year’s contenders. It’s so gorgeous, so swoon-worthy, that it doesn’t seem part of real life at all. 

I’m talking, of course, about Call Me By Your Name, a film that’s all-aquiver with the intensity of its lovers’ passion. I remember hearing about this film after last year’s Sundance: from the start it was seen as an awards contender. And perhaps in a different year it would be at the top of the heap, at least in part to make up for the fact that in 2006 the Academy denied a Best Picture Oscar to another gay love story, Brokeback Mountain. I was fascinated by the inarticulate cowboys in that film. And I can’t deny that the actors in Call Me By Your Name are both attractive and convincing. Timothée Chalamet, the youngest man in many years to be up for a Best Actor Oscar, is a powerful presence, one whose emotional highs and lows seem to leap off the screen. (It’s completely irrelevant, but I’m enthralled by the fact that his mother’s brother, director Rodman Flender, was a colleague of mine at Concorde Pictures. I always thought Rodman had a distinctive look and manner, and now I see it runs in the family.)

Still, I must say I found this film hard to take, for reasons that have nothing to do with moral outrage. Under the guidance of Italian director Luca Guadagnino, it’s so slow, so limpid, so sensitive. Yes, the photography is beautiful: it captures lives that are so blissfully sensuous that they seem to have nothing to do with the world as I know it. It’s the height of summer in a small Italian town. The Perlman family are ensconced in their 17th century villa, where they have no obligation to do anything but read books, play music, swim in the river, and think deep thoughts. The father (well played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned scholar of archaeology, so he occasionally waxes poetic about the alluring beauty of Greek statuary, but he seems to have no pressing duties. Seventeen-year-old son Elio (Chalamet) rides around town on a bicycle, half-heartedly experiments with sex with a local girl, and then cuddles on a sofa with his parents while his mother reads aloud from a German novel she translates on the spot. (The Perlmans have the maddening habit of switching from English to French to Italian in casual conversation.) Then a hunky grad student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives, and Elio is totally smitten. 

Soon amid all those perfect al fresco meals and smoothies made by the maid from perfect peaches plucked from a perfect backyard orchard, Oliver and Elio are taking tentative steps to acknowledge what they feel for one another. And the world’s most understanding parents are quietly cheering them on. Actually, Oliver – though pretty -- was for me pretty much a blank. I suspect Timothée Chalamet’s Elio can do much better.

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