Movies exist very much like dreams do, you experience them in the dark and they offer an escape to somewhere else, a heightened sense of reality. They can help you live a life you never would and introduce you to new worlds. However, movies and films they can be just as fleeting as dreams, failing to take root even as you sit there transfixed by certain elements. Such is the case of Call Me By Your Name, a movie that’s equally good as it is uninteresting, providing for a somewhat frustrating watch.
Luca Guadagnino helms the tale of Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17 year old son of an art professor, who at the start of the summer, isn’t that happy to give up his room to Oliver (Armie Hammer), the new summer research student for his father. The two become rather taciturn and antagonistic, even as they put on a happy face for the parents and adults in their orbit. But things begin to thaw, and what starts as a friendship begins to move towards something more. The push and pull of attraction can threaten to overwhelm even the best among us, and Elio and Oliver make critical choices about what to do with theirs, ones that will conceivably change their lives.
Elio’s journey in the film is the story’s main through line and yet, for much of the movie, the camera remains surprisingly objective. I believe this hurts the film as the subtleties are actually a little too much so. The movie snaps into much clearer focus in the second half because the passion is consummated and these characters are being filmed in a way that supports that. The longing that is necessary to sell this is just not there, with a script by James Ivory that is more reliant on the audience knowing the characters will get together rather than doing the work story wise. Adapting books is hard and being in the head of a narrator more easily tracks. When you take away the subjective voice, even for a moment, you have to work harder to make the narrative flow. Call Me By Your Name feels like a vignette of a romance, rather than an simmering build up to an explosion.
You cannot deny the power of certain scenes in the vignette that is this movie though. I found myself in awe of some of the images in Call Me By Your Name from the simple framing of Elio lounging against his parents while reading about French princes to the complex single take near a statue in a plaza. I about died of cinematic bliss when the film’s best scene (a dance party) was mirrored in a much less crowded, but equally character driven way. These moments elevate the film to incredible highs, but then things come back to earth.
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer do some wonderful work in this film and are an interesting pair to tackle these characters. The movie is better when it’s forcing Elio and Oliver into each other’s orbit and both men sell the dilemmas their characters are facing well. There’s a scene involving a peach that has to be seen to be believed, but it’s really the scene that comes after that’s the doozy. Call Me By Your Name needed more of that, sharper focus on the characters and their orbit, rather than the flighty story it ended up giving.