As E.L. James arrived at the premise of an extravagant women’s fantasy of romance, sex, luxury, and the accompanying pain, meant to heighten the effects of its pleasures, so Luca Gaudagnino has set up a sumptuous gay fantasy, in the northern Italian countryside, with summer’s sun and ripe fruits replacing handcuffs and riding crops. (In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson was at one point considered to direct this adaptation of André Aciman’s novel.) But the money is still there, and a lot of it, and even more so the characters’ supposed cultural sophistication. In the place of the self-assured and knowingly desirous Christian Grey, we have Oliver (Armie Hammer), a history scholar who has come to Italy from America to work as the assistant of a distinguished archaeologist named Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg); the ingénue on whom he sets his sights is Perlman’s son, the precocious twink Elio (Timothée Chalamet). They skirt past each other, and initial romantic prospects are obscured by Oliver’s inscrutable furtiveness and Elio’s self-absorbed self-loathing, but, eventually, a romance buds and blooms, and, for the somewhat isolated and unenlightened 17-year-old Elio, of age becomes just as inevitable a place to come as anywhere else.
Gaudagnino, James Ivory (who wrote the script), and Aciman fill out the fantasy with a huge inherited estate in the northern Italian countryside, a loving family, truly liberal parents, lithe and bare-skinned youths, promiscuous teenagers, constant sunshine, food and drink, old-world architecture, impressionist music, modernist music, Euro pop music, and a freeing period setting of the early 1980s, skirting the arrival in Italy of the AIDS crisis and Thatcher/Reaganite shame. Gaudagnino has meticulously constructed a tone and a mood to serve this fantasy: His carefully selected film stock (just grainy enough to remind you of a sunnier, simpler time), matted colours, attentive and shrewd framing of shots, clever and purposeful cuts, appropriately brooding looks from his actors, and a well-practiced naturalism and simulated playfulness among his young actors are all precisely calibrated to stoke an emotional effect in the audience. The images serve nostalgia and easy desire, and seem almost deliberately devised not to convey ideas. Gaudagnino and Ivory may have had their artistic differences (which is why Ivory ended up not directing, as he had intended to), yet, in Gaudagnino’s canny fabrication of a faux-haute delicacy, Call Me By Your Name seems to have a lot in common with Ivory’s films — Gaudagnino merely deploys a more contemporary (and typically European) art-house consciousness to mitigate any overt romantic indulgences.
Ivory would have abandoned himself to an intensely kitsch romanticism and let his scenes in the northern Italian countryside roll by as Puccini thundered across the soundtrack (which is exactly what happens in his A Room With a View); Gaudagnino keeps a scene going just long enough to push the plot along, then cuts out to the next half-baked reverie. He even cuts out the music playing, to show explicitly his determination not to be seen as indulging in or exploiting any of the old-school bourgeois excesses common to art-house love stories. (The most notable pieces of music used are Ravel’s piano character piece “Un barque sur l’océan” and a piano piece by John Adams called “Hallelujah Junction.”). Ivory and Gaudagnino are both excessive in their gratifications, in rather different ways, but neither ultimately sees nor shows much of their characters’ potential inner beings, nor do they grant any significant view or vision of the lingering and deeply resounding inner experiences their characters are meant to undergo.
Call Me By Your Name has no real emotional or existential freedom and no quiver of risk. Chalamet’s constant twirling and self-conscious whimsy is of a kind with Hammer’s unfailing self-assuredness: There is no sense of an actor’s spontaneous movement caught on camera or of a real person’s occasional faltering, questioning, or introspection; both are deliberately studied to seem as natural as possible and also to fit perfectly into the schema of the story. They seem never to have given way to new or contradictory or surprising ideas, emotions, or actions that may have arisen on set and in the moment.
These are problems in the director’s execution, yet there are failings in Ivory’s script as well. (I haven’t read the novel, and can’t say whether the problems are in his source or his adaptation.) Elio and Oliver have no meeting of minds in their love affair. In my judgement, they can’t have had as special a relationship as the story supposes and as Perlman declares that they had in his moving speech at the end of the film, since they share no intellectual connection, especially for two such intellectual people. In the story as Ivory and Gaudagnino have told it, neither has any ideas about anything, whether fully formed or underdeveloped (at least, neither ever gives an indication of having any ideas), and, as their romance flares up, they have virtually nothing to talk about, except for the sex they just had, or that they’re about to have, or that they wish to keep having. When Perlman describes the rarity and nobility of their relationship, it can only be related to their shared attraction, sexual pleasure, and affected joie de vivre in the presence of a lover; not to the fuller and broader delights and challenges one is met with in a true and deep romance with another person. In contrast to the allegedly highbrow Call Me By Your Name, I’m reminded of the popular Hollywood romantic comedy Trainwreck, by Judd Apatow, which — though it may seem coarse and disastefully commercialist to fans of the first — had a much fuller conception of the experiences, parameters, and demands of a modern romance, and was far less exploitative of its audiences’ easier aspirations and desires.
In the end, there is no sense of how Oliver or his relationship with Oliver has changed Elio and how he has grown, except to expand his catalogue of sexual activities and emotional reactions. I think the most constructive advice I can give a reader who may wish to see it is to see Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird as well. It has many of the same popular elements: A coming-of-age story, first love, grainy film stock, a nostalgic view of youth, Timothée Chalamet as a hyper-literate asshole, and Gays. What’s missing is a pseudo-naturalist, too-easily gratifying view of unadulterated and unexamined pleasures, and what’s added is an observational honesty and genuine tender and touching emotion.