The proclamation made from the opening frames of Luca Guadagnino’s new film Call Me By Your Name, an adaptation of the novel by Andre Aciman, is that the film is about surfaces. It may even love surfaces; external beauty is nothing if not a doorway to something more tender and elusive. Its title sequence, created by Chen Li, showcases scattered objects on a table filling the space left blank between photographs of statues and sculptures from antiquity. Though their faces are blank, in the detail of their eyes and of their expressions sliding gently against the smooth exterior of marble and other stones, there’s enough of a hint to suggest that, as Michael Stuhlbarg’s professorial patriarch Mr. Perlman suggests, the statues are “daring you to desire.” The film, while occasionally inching towards it, never takes that dare.
The bourgeoning romance (or is it fling?) between adolescent Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) is, as depicted in Aciman’s novel, a cat and mouse game, a temptation and a lesson in how to cruise. The first half of Call Me By Your Name is about Elio training himself: how to recognize glances, how to look for meaning in a touch of the shoulder. Every intellectual gambit between Elio and Oliver is this little in-game, a performance in a secret language that’s not supposed to be very recognizable to anyone else. But Guadagnino seems ambivalent about letting his audience in on that game, watching Elio try to find that intimacy and desire in intimation—from a distance, literally. The film is composed travel-book-bee-yoo-tifully, consisting primarily of long shots, which means that rarely are we given the chance to get close enough to any surface to really unearth libidinous pleasures. Little of the film or its presence is tactile, save for select few moments, like the “peach scene,” where obvious care and focus goes into sound and image. Much of it lacks detail.
Call Me By Your Name’s fixation on statues and surfaces only ever pays off intermittently. Perlman, while showing Oliver slides of statues, says, “There’s not a straight body among them. They’re all curved.” We see, too, the statuesque beauty of Hammer from time to time, leaning in a doorway alone, sometimes sharing the frame with Elio, or perhaps placing his weight on one leg while looking at Elio sprawled on the bed. His sinewy musculature, contrasted against Chalamet’s lithe body, shimmers in the sunshine, and these moments—when Call Me By Your Name revels in their beauty and in the intoxication of their bodies lying contiguously—are to be cherished, because they feel so rare. Neither Elio nor the camera is ever willing to really cut up his body, to objectify him so that Oliver is merely physical parts disembodied without agency. Instead, the film’s is almost a coldly respectful gaze. It’s like being in a museum.
Continually there seems to be a reticence to embrace the explicit eroticism of the source material or its temporally rooted treasures, as Aciman’s novel is one of memory and self-narrativization. The disinclination to really cruise or allow its audience watch raptly the sexual mind games between the two recalls to mind Merchant/Ivory films, with reason: James Ivory penned a very good screenplay, but that he abstained from directing shows. If Merchant/Ivory films, such as the gay love story Maurice and the post-war drama The Remains of the Day, are just as much about mannered people and the surfaces they hide behind, those films are willing to dig to find the full-throated danger and elation of making contact. Take for instance, in the latter Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, when aging butler Mr. James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) and Miss Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson) are just millimeters apart from one another. They’re lit only by candle, the camera willing to invade that space to find the trembling eros in the dark. Call Me By Your Name almost never takes that risk, and almost never gets that close to its characters.
Space might be the problem, then. We sometimes see the way Elio looks, but for the most part, when he looks, and when Oliver looks back or doesn’t look back, touches or doesn’t touch? We’re too far away, unfortunate voyeurs. The details of the film are too small for anyone, perhaps particularly a queer person, to see. Oliver occupying the frame in the distance like an annoying, lascivious fly is a nice touch, and the space between Elio and Oliver is supposed to be cavernous at times, but in a crucial scene, when the gap between them is literally closed, emotionally and sensually, Call Me By Your Name stays wide open.
The occasional interest in what queer bodies look like and how they move, the infrequent concentration on the detail of a Star of David or on the stitching on a shirt, it all suggests that the film, in the beginning, is as terrified as Elio initially is. It never gets over that hesitation. Call Me By Your Name thinks about cruising and playing games, but never makes up its mind; Elio’s obsession is quiet, rather than earth-shaking. Though Chalamet and Hammer are up to the task of communicating a competition of desire with as few words as possible, they offer up a dare and a proposition that Guadagnino and his film never fully take on. Maybe they’re afraid of the consequences.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: Luca Guadagnino, James Ivory, Walter Fasano
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel
Release Date: November 24, 2017