Of the leading Best Picture contenders, I can now safely say I’ve seen all the films likely to get nominations unless Phantom Thread or something else pulls a surprise and sneaks in. It also means that Oscar watching season is finally coming to an end which is simultaneously sad (though the down period in quality has seemed to shift to summer from late winter lately) and a welcome relief. It means that the number of films I feel I have to see is going down and it is refreshing to be able to pick what I want to see or just stay home more than I’ve been. It’s the freedom to not feel like my week’s choices planned out for me that I crave.
Following up A Bigger Splash, a film about a couple in Italy whose life is disrupted by the arrival of two desirable people, Call Me by Your Name is Luca Guadagnino about a family whose life is disrupted by the arrival of one desirable man. I can’t speak to his first film of this unofficial trilogy, I Am Love, but Guadagnino has a basic premise he seems to like. That being said, while the basic set up and style in very similar, the films diverge quite a bit. While A Bigger Splash is a mediocre and forgettable title in spite of a great cast with a stupid ending, Call Me by Your Name is a far better made film from top to bottom.
Timothée Chalamet (fresh off an appearance in an even stronger Best Picture contender, Lady Bird) leads the film as a 17 year old going through his coming-of-age story, a thoughtful and introspective one who is can be a bit of a jerk early on in the film. His life is interrupted by the newest arrival and assistant to his professor father (who is played by hedging his Best Picture bets Michael Stulhbarg). That man is portrayed by Armie Hammer as a stylish and cool American who is basically desired and loved by all. Hammer makes it believable, certainly helped by the way he towers over the rest of the cast and commands attention naturally whenever he’s onscreen. Everything about him is just so confident and he takes to life quickly in the small town
Of course, one of those who falls for him is Chalamet who despite his many efforts poor attempts to hide it and generally be a petulant child around his guest, eventually and slowly develops something special and romantic with him. It’s a sweet relationship, even if it’s one doomed by the inevitability of Hammer’s character’s eventual departure at the end of his six week stay and by a mostly unspoken, especially implied by Hammer, that such a relationship just isn’t a long-term possibility especially in the early ’80s setting. I do love the way that the movie for the most part leaves these things unsaid and when they do come up, James Ivory’s script (of Merchant Ivory directing fame and who nearly co-directed this film) says more than enough in a few words instead of relying on speechifying. Stuhlbarg is probably the only one in the film who gets a typical Oscar intro speech, but the film keeps it quiet and he unsurprisingly nails it with warmth and conviction.
I also quite liked the way the film tied their shared Judaism into it, the openness of Hammer’s displaying of his religious orientation contrasting with the more hidden nature of it in the family he stays with. A family who lives (at least part time) in an Italy which still maintains a population of those alive during WWII and even one prominently supporting Benito Mussolini, an implied sense that in a very Christian nation, Judaism itself still wasn’t all that accepted even though the family was.
After reading all that you might get to thinking I loved the film. Well you’d be all wrong and then some as I’m not even sure I liked it because there’s one thing holding up the whole affair; it’s paced like an elderly slug. Slow is one thing and if I’m being generous I’d call it deliberately languid, but the film is 132 minutes and yet felt like it was pushing four hours. It’s not a good sign when the film seems to offer multiple early outs where the film could end, and I was desperately hoping that it would. I can’t even say that there was too much I’d chop out (okay, maybe I’d cut out our protagonist fucking an apricot but that’s not a time thing), it’s just that every scene seemed to drag on for an eternity. Maybe it’s the fact that the film took it’s time to get anywhere (even to the basic romance at the center), but theoretically, that’s not a bad thing. I appreciate all it was trying to do, and it was both successful on a scene to scene basis and in the overall plot, it’s just that somehow that wasn’t enough. It’s a film that’s gorgeous to look at, but there’s only so far that will go before I start to get anxious.
I really do hate the fact that I didn’t love the film since it does so much right and my biggest complaint is still something that I abstractly admire about the film. This truly feels like the film Guadagnino wanted to make It’s just a shame that doesn’t make the film any more pleasant to sit through. If you can deal with a film that goes well past being patient with its story then I can easily recommend it, but for me it was just a really well made and well-acted but typical quiet indie title that had lost me by the end.