Oh, brother! I've actually lost count of the the number of critics who have invoked those words - or a variation of them - in their reviews of Luca Guadagnino's quite splendid, Oscar-bait work, "Call Me by Your Name."
In terms of its narrative, the film is decidedly not beautiful, unless the critics are referring either to the stunning, sun-struck rural landscape of Northern Italy, where the film takes place, or to the monied lifestyle of its privilege characters. But its storyline itself is rather unpleasant, not unlike one of its characters, Oliver, a young man with a sense of entitlement, played commandingly - and uncompromisingly - by Armie Hammer.
And, the fact is, Guadagnino's film is not really a love story at all, but a bittersweet tale of the one-sided infatuation experienced by its teenage protagonist, Elio Perlman, played by the remarkable and preternaturally gifted Timothée Chalamet. "Call Me by Your Name" is much more nuanced and complicated than its glowing reviews imply - and much of that has to do with handsome Oliver, the undeserving object of Elio's infatuation.
The 22-year-old Chalamet plays Elio who, we're told, is 17 (but, physically, looks closer to 15). Elio's father (Michael Stuhlbarg, excellent) is a professor of Greco-Roman culture and art who, every year, invites a graduate student to assist him in his lofty, rather solipsistic research at the family's summer manse. This year, that student is Oliver who is supposed to be 22 but is played by the 31-year-old Hammer who looks 31. Got that?
Oliver is immediately presented as something of an imperious prig who, initially, is dismissive of Elio, who comes to resent this rude interloper. But the more Oliver condescends to him, the more Elio is attracted to Oliver.
It should be noted at this juncture that both Elio and Oliver are involved with women, although only Elio seems to be sexually active with his girlfriend. One is uncertain about Oliver, who tends to be exhibitionistic with the local women but is never seen being intimate with them.
More pertinent to the narrative are the assorted messes that Oliver routinely leaves in his wake. He is recklessly impulsive and jaw-droppingly inconsiderate. It may not seem like much but his room (Elio's room, actually) is a mess, with clothing tossed here and there, and when he mutilates a soft-boiled egg at breakfast, he leaves it uneaten and is served another. He is a guest here, see; others can clean up after him.
A feeling of dread overtakes the second half of the film as he draws in Elio in a passive-aggressive manner that's truly impressive and starts a sexual relationship with the teenager. From what we've seen of Oliver, it's apparent that this will not end well. And it doesn't. Given that the film has been in release for several months now, I'm going to indulge in a spoiler.
A few months after Oliver returns to the states, he phones the Perlmans with the news that he is getting married. The film ends with Elio huddled in front of a fireplace staring at the flames. His face is in close-up. He's transfixed, numb. Guadagnino lets this moment play longer than any other filmmaker would. Elio slowly tears up. The amazing Chalamet telegraphs his character's sense of abandonment and isolation, as a festive family dinner is being prepared in the background. It's painful to watch.
Oliver has moved on. The forgotten Elio hasn't. One senses that he will be haunted by this experience for the rest of his life, and not in a good way. Beautiful? Hardly. Guadagnino's film is a great, unrelenting tragedy.
And that's why "Call Me by Your Name" is powerful.
Now, about the subject of spoilers in movie reviews...
Even a movie critic whose vague credentials are fair game for scrutiny has an edge over your average moviegoer by virtue of the fact that he/she sees everything - or almost everything, given all the titles that go direct to video or play On Demand or disappear after some film festival screening.
Although I spent half of my life as a working movie critic, I don't read very many reviews myself because, yes, people who review films are (or can be) supercilious. But there are also other reasons. Too many critics are self-consciously elitist. Too many go along with the popular opinions or trends among their colleagues (case in point: "Call Me by Your Name").
And, worst of all, too many are predictable.
That's the Cardinal Sin for me.
It's disheartening to be able to accurately predict exactly how your local movie critic will review a film (based on who directed it, who stars in it, where it's playing, whatever) before he/she actually reviews the thing.
Then there is the lazy reviewer, whose "critique" of the film in question is nearly all synopsis, revealing plot point after plot point, with a few adjectives tossed in for quotability. Case in point: My friend Marvin sent me a link to The Hollywood Reporter review of Keira Knightley's "Colette" that recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival, with the comment, "Joe, I feel that I have already seen the damn film. A little bit of 'analysis' would have been welcome." Personally, I was able to find one lone adjective ("enjoyable") that serves as a "critique" of the film, only one.
The entire review is a spoiler. Where the hell was the reviewer's editor?
This tendency among current critics is anathema to me.
I received a lot of hate mail in my time from readers, largely accusing me of having bad taste, but never about giving away too much of a movie's plot. I routinely allotted no more than two graphs (three tops) to plot.
Today, I obviously spoiled that record.
Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials. Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.
* * * * *
~A moment from "Call Me by Your Name"
~Photography: Sony Classics 2017©
~Anton Ego, the critic in "Ratatouille"
~Anton Ego, the critic in "Ratatouille"
~Photography: Pixar/Disney 2007©