Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 04, 2017 5:51 am 
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Summer love

Many lovers of André Aciman's intense 1983 gay romance (plus coming out and coming of age) novel Call Me by Your Name are embracing James Ivory's screen adaptation, directed by Luca Guadagnino. And one can see why. The combination, along with Armie Hammer as Oliver, the 23-year-old visiting research assistant, and Timothée Chalamet as his professorial host's bright, ripe teenage son Elio, seems just about perfect - especially since the Ivory-Guadagnino adapting team have wisely chosen to keep the novel's sometimes overwrought, over-analyzing first-person intensity more on the light and "frothy" side - without tempering the sensuality. Chalamet in particular is a revelation, but his young-guy role is ably anchored in the gay love story by the 6'5", deep-voiced Hammer. Both throw themselves into the brief but intense summer romance set in northern Italy, providing the core of what turns out to be a beautiful film, Guadagnino's most straightforward effort and greatest success so far.

The romance, with its strong (yet somewhat vague) physical, sexual side, is the thing, a sort of youthful explosion both sudden and long-awaited. The delay, filled with Elio's endless questioning and self-doubt about whether he likes Oliver or Oliver likes him, when the mutual attraction turns out to have been there from the first - this is deftly conveyed by Ivory's dialogue in a single conversation, making up for all those agonizing and teasing inner monologues in the book, though in the movie as in the book it's halfway through before the two guys even kiss.

What's lost is the emotional richness and sadness of the novel's years- and even decades-later followups that show this affair was the love of Elio's life, while Oliver moved on and (clear in the film) got married very soon after, not that the affair didn't mean a lot to Oliver too. This is where a novel - especially by an avowed Proustian, indeed Proust scholar - can provide intellectual subtlety a film lacks. But what Guadagnino can provide, as he showed in his impressive feature debut I Am Love/Io sono l'amore, is pulsating physicality. Every soft boiled egg, every cup of coffee, every dip in the lake and boyish erection is savored, while many moments are heightened by a background of Elio's intensified keyboard playing.

Chalamet arrives with a delicate beauty plus a dash of bravado, and quite a skill set. Elio, and so Chalamet, is fluent in English, French and Italian, dances with abandon, smokes with panache, makes love to a young woman, Marzia (Esther Garrel), plays piano and guitar, and has sex with a (large, ripe) peach. That last act may be his greatest challenge, but the actor is also, impressively, closeup on camera for the long final shot where he smiles and weeps and turns away, his face alone conveying the novel's last chapters' messages. Early on, he plays a Bach air on guitar and when Oliver requests a keyboard version, improvises it in three different styles. But Hammer as Oliver too is an impressive mix, hunk as smart as ephebe, casual with his trendy salutation, "Later," physically relaxed and friendly, but dazzling in his etymological knowhow.

It's an Italian but also international setting, a splendid summer and holiday house with a cook and gardener-driver, the nearby towns vague in the novel but apparently shot around Lucca for the movie, the place inherited, one gathers, by Elio's mother (Amira Casar). This is where Guadagnino comes through especially, since he is assured with the local people and atmosphere, including a comical couple arguing over politics in Italian at an alfresco home dinner party (in the novel these are nightly).

It isn't forgotten that both Oliver and Elio's family are Jewish, though Elio says his mother (for local consumption in this Italian town without minorities) - and this is 1983, after all, a fact subtly conveyed throughout - are "Jews of discretion": they don't broadcast it. A nice detail is that when the relationship gets going Elio breaks out a little gold Star of David he has like Oliver's and wears it around his neck as a token. Not that in the movie some details from Aciman's novel don't become a bit fuzzy, including the two young men's relationships with young women, Oliver's poker-playing in town, the identities of the cook, Mafalda (Vanda Capriolo) and gardener-driver, Anchise (Antonio Rimoldi) - while Oliver's scholarly accomplishments come across early on as a stunt, like Elio's keyboard acumen.

What to me seemed over-emphasized in the film's shortened context is the almost sermonizingly "understanding" speech of Elio's father (Michael Stuhlbarg) after Oliver is gone, about the relationship he and Oliver have had. It seems also unnecessary on the two guy's short final trip together to inject sequences of spectacular nature, when the novel has them in Rome. But these flaws don't keep the movie from feeling like a success that touches us and leaves one with much to ponder. This is a rather ideal novel adaptation that makes one feel why such things are worth doing.

And this one has a special resonance. I can find no better way to end than the conclusion of Jordan Hoffman's own admirably specific Guardian review: "Call Me By Your Name is a masterful work because of the specificity of its details. This is not a love story that 'just happens to be gay'. The level of trust and strength these characters share brings a richness that is not necessarily known to a universal audience. But the craft on display from all involved is an example, yet again, of how movies can create empathy in an almost spiritual way. This is a major entry in the canon of queer cinema."

Call Me by Your Name, 132 mins., debuted at Sundance and Berlin Jan. 2017, showing in at least two dozen festivals. Screened for this review at the New York Film Festival Tues. 3 Oct. 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, with a Q&A involving Luca Guadagnino, Armie Hammer, and Timothée Chalamet and a typically enthusiastic audience. People love this movie. And so do critics: Metacritic rating 97% [4 Oct. 2017; now 93% (11 Jan. 2018)]. US theatrical release 24 Nov. 2017.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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