Thursday, February 01, 2018

luca guadagnino’s "call me by your name": getting it wrong & other supercilious offenses

"A beautiful love story!"

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.

Here goes...

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...

Movie critics are often accused of being supercilious, probably because critics (and only critics) use words like supercilious. But the fact is, a critic is indeed superior to the average moviegoer because there's a distinct difference between an educated opinion and a merely casual observation.

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.

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(from top)

~A moment from "Call Me by Your Name"
~Photography: Sony Classics 2017© 

~Anton Ego, the critic in "Ratatouille"
~Photography: Pixar/Disney 2007©


Mike Schlesinger said...

I'm as much of a bear on spoilers as anyone, but it's worth noting that the trades are not intended for the general public and have historically given away the entire plot. (I recently read a Variety review of an early Spencer Tracy picture which literally tells us that he dies in the opening paragraph.) I agree that more of a judgment should be rendered, even if it's just from a box office standpoint, but people need to understand that if you read a trade review, you're likely going to get more than you bargained for.

joe baltake said...

Mike- Yes, originally, reviews in the trades were written for distributors and theater chains, but both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have expanded their readership to outside the industry, especially THR. That said, even in the bad old days, I don’t recall ever reading a trade review that didn’t include at least one sentence of analysis. -J

Sheila said...

I also was confused by Oliver's sexuality, Joe. Had the film been set in contemporary times, I might have thought that when Oliver phoned to say he was getting married, it was to another man. But the film, I believe, is set in the 1980s. So he was apparently preparing to marry a woman, which makes me curious about his relationship with Elio.

Kennedy Marshall said...

I must respond to Sheila's comment, wherein she states that she wasn't exactly sure of Hammer's "sexuality" in the film. My view is that Hammer's character was definitely gay. Yes, he was going to "marry," but many gay men did just that at the time when the film took place. And speaking of when the film took place, the writer indicates that the film takes place in the eighties. I think the film takes place in the VERY EARLY eighties, because there was no mention of AIDS, which reared its ugly head in the EARLY eighties. Especially in the VERY EARLY eighties, it was not unusual for gay men/women to "marry" (and hope for the best, so to speak).

joe baltake said...

The film is set in 1986.

deirdre said...

The scenery and Armie Hammer are so beautiful that one almost doesn't realize how negative Armie's character is. But I did. I'm going to read the book to see how similar/different it is.

Alex said...

Yours is the best review that I have read of "Call Me by Your Name." No other reviewer (I repeat: no other reviewer) has emphasized that the Armie Hammer character is "kind of" a shit. Very entitled, to be sure, and really very passive-aggressive in his approach to the Timothee Chalamet character.

Kiki said...

Joe, I saw the trailer of this and was SO turned off. How did you manage to sit through it! k.

joe baltake said...

Yes, the trailer. A little too precious, even for me. It's one of those trailers that actually does a disservice to the movie, as have the (favorable) reviews that I referenced. I’ve a hunch that this movie isn't for you, Kiki. -J

Flip said...

Perhaps a more appropriate title for the film would be AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. (Oops! That title has been used before!) Thanks,again, for a brilliant piece on a brilliant film!

Donald said...

Great great great great point about Chalamet looking 15 (but is supposed to be 17 in the film) and Hammer looking 31 (but is supposed to be 22 in the film). Joe, I may have gotten the wrong age numbers. Your EXCELLENT point is that the two characters are supposed to be of a certain age, but one looks younger than his "certain" age, and the other looks older than his "certain" age. This adds a lot of texture, or subtext, to the film (which is why you pointed it out, I believe).

v.h. said...

An excellent point about Armie being able to "survive" the summer encounter, but you are not certain whether or not Timothee will.

Charlotte said...

I agree with Alex. I saw the film. I read a lot of its reviews but no one mentions how awful the Armie Hammer character behaves. From scene one on, he behaves like a jerk, hardly attractive. Elio is initially repelled by him, understandably. But I think he is worn down by Oliver's bullying and the fact that he is physically gorgeour.

Brian Lucas said...

One of the more interesting things about "Call me by Your Name" is how the Armie Hammer character is written and how the actor plays it. From the first scene in which he appears, the character is presented as a stand-offish snob, not at all pleasant, and yet this hasn't been mentioned in any of the reviews I read. The way this character behaves plays a big part in the love affair that follows. It impacts the later scenes because we are never sure of Oliver's motives or his sincerity. I feel that the movie I saw is much more interesting than the "beautiful love story" that the critics reviewed.

Nancy said...

Beautiful review and wonderful analysis of a film critic vs a movie goer.

Bill from Philly said...

Critics wouldn't be accused of "spoilers" in their reviews if those reviews were nearly all synopsis, as you point out. Too much plot takes up too many reviews - and, yeah, it's lazy writing. As your friend Marvin says, I want some analysis!