Sometimes I just don’t get it. I’ve heard nothing but glowing praise for Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name since its premiere at Sundance last year, so I was understandably excited to see what all the fuss was about. I have to confess I was distressed by the results — two hours and 15 minutes of male pornographic fantasy in which an older man seduces a young boy in a seemingly conflict- and consequence-free bubble of sensuous surreality. While Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory adapt author André Aciman’s novel with a deep level of tact and emotional honesty, I personally could never move beyond the fundamental flaw of the story’s premise — namely the problematic sexualization of a 17-year-old. Maybe it’s just me, but I found the ick factor unassailably high on this one.
The film follows the brief but passionate love affair between Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a precocious adolescent musical prodigy, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), an implausibly good-looking grad student interning for Elio’s archaeology professor dad (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their romance is slow burn personified, as the seemingly inevitable coupling doesn’t occur until well after the film’s midway point. But this lengthy and melodramatic buildup belies an odd lack of dramatic tension — there’s never any question of if these two could get together, leaving only the issue of whether or not they should.
It’s in this central question that Ivory and Gudagnino’s narrative falters, as there’s no real conflict in the script — Elio’s parents seem oddly unperturbed by the obvious attraction developing between their teenage son and their significantly older short-term houseguest, and no one else seems to bat an eye as the two spend languid afternoons indulging in each other’s exclusive company. Perhaps there’s a fundamental prudishness to my reading of this film, but I strongly suspect that, had I taken long bike rides with an underage girl when I was in my mid-20s, some very serious questions would have been raised.
But beyond my problems with the premise, Call Me is beleaguered by a host of other issues. The pacing of Ivory’s script is unduly languorous, dwelling far too long on story beats that do little to advance the plot or develop character. Guadagnino’s aesthetic approach is unrefined, soft focus and low light being handled almost intentionally amateurishly, as though he couldn’t be bothered to adequately light or frame a shot — unless it was a shot of a writhing teen consummating his relationship with a particularly juicy piece of fruit, that is.
Self-indulgence is far from the greatest cinematic sin out there, but ideally such indulgences should be in service of a point. Call Me doesn’t seem to have much of one, at least beyond bemoaning the anguish of young love. Your mileage may certainly vary, as I seem to be in a minuscule dissenting minority here, but if I wanted Bertolucci by way of Sirk, I’d find my time better spent revisiting those directors directly. Rated R for sexual content, nudity and some language.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Fine Arts Theatre, Regal Biltmore Grande.