Sunday 6 October 2019

On demand: "Call Me By Your Name"

The film that launched a thousand memes on first release, Call Me By Your Name now looks a curiously old-fashioned affair - an arthouse throwback in which attractive people in photogenic surrounds work through the feelings stirred up by the newcomer in their midst. It's so old-fashioned it builds towards a tearful leavetaking on a railway station platform; so old-fashioned it follows that with a handing down of wisdom from father to son. In retrospect, the presence behind the camera of Luca Guadagnino - the emergent Italian stylist who lit up screens with I Am Love and A Bigger Splash - may be of far less significance than that of writer, producer and apparent creative prime mover James Ivory, late of Merchant-Ivory and first to see the sensual cinematic possibilities in André Aciman's 80s-set source novel. The newcomer, as you will be aware by now, is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a tall, strapping masters student who arrives at the Italian country retreat of American archaeology professor Michael Stuhlbarg to commence a summer of field studies. Most affected is the prof's bumfluffy 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the skinny, oft-shirtless focus of many of those memes, who gives up his room to the new arrival, but gains intimacies besides in return: a warm body in his bed, someone with whom he has to share a bathroom and on whom he develops the most throbbing of teenage crushes. At once, the film presents as less fusty than those arthouse favourites of the 1960s/70s that dealt with relationships between intellectual men and their young female acolytes, principally by adopting a perspective close to the junior party when faced with a (slightly) old man; the setting may be Italy, but these characters are following in the footsteps of the Greeks.

This led to a measure of disappointment in certain quarters when the film proved far less fleshy than certain viewers were clearly anticipating: a freshly plucked peach sees more action than the camera ever does, and one coyly chucklesome pan from the boys on the bed to a nice tree out of an adjacent bedroom window may lead some to wonder from which decade the film hails exactly. Even that discrete manoeuvre, however, is true to the summery Rohmer fables that are Guadagnino's obvious inspiration here - films from an age when a glimpse of Claire's knee was all viewers were given to go on. The reaction (I may mean over-reaction) to CMBYN upon its debut seems like yet another illustration of just how film culture has changed since the millennium. Those Rohmer films were part of the fabric of international cinema, a small handful of the literate, sophisticated dramas that emerged every week, month, year. Guadagnino's film - no less of a romance for civilised adults - was converted, via the now-standard festival-circuit hype, into an Oscar-worthy event, announced as the thinking person's awards bait, then turned over to the mothmen and scarab beetles of Film Twitter so that its every aspect might be embroidered and picked over. Perhaps it's no surprise that those devotees of social media should have wanted more in the way of instant gratification; two decades of full-frontal assaults from Gaspar Noe and Carlos Reygadas, among others, have left the arthouse crowd thirstier than ever, and in certain quarters, the simmering desire of the classics may no longer hit the spot.

Still, to cavil at CMBYN for that is to ignore the film's essential warmth: it has far more blood in its body than similar movies by Joanna Hogg (Archipelago) and Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), to name but two. That warmth extends beyond the climate - caught in Apichatpong Weerasethakul associate Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's dreamy cinematography, which meshes very specifically with the viewer's own memories of times in the sun - to, say, the fond observation of the dorky, white-socked shapes Hammer pulls on the dancefloor to the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way", or of what the bored, antsy Elio gets up to on those sticky afternoons when he's the only one left in the villa, or indeed of the near-stereotypical Italian couple who, having been invited to join this party for dinner, proceed to gesticulate their way through all three courses. At all these junctures, Guadagnino sits, waits and watches, leaning into a lingering embrace of these characters - thereby creating the kind of memories they too might carry into later life - rather than hunting for quick, cheap thrills. Playing the long game allows him to overcome the (admittedly, not unenjoyable) superficiality of his earlier films; the proximity of Ivory - a steadying hand, from another era of period romances - has been good for him. The sincere interest the film displays in archaeology helps to set the characters in some wider historical context, and sets the camera to thinking about more enduring elements than flesh or fashion. (Watching Elio tail Oliver around a dig site, you may recall George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman picking over the pieces of a marriage during their own Journey to Italy. Told you it was a throwback.)

One surprise a few years down the tracks is that there weren't more outright spoofs among the memes: this is, after all, the kind of determinedly high-minded film in which one character enters a room asking "Darling, have you seen my Heptameron?" This may be down to the absence of French and Saunders-style sketch shows from the contemporary TV schedules. (I suspect Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke, in their erstwhile Kevin and Perry modes, would have had a lot of fun with it.) Yet it's also surely attributable to the affection we, too, come to feel towards these characters. Hammer, for all his Ivy League-schooled affections, seems genuinely flustered by the young buck's attention, and chivalrously determined to do the right thing by and with him; and without expending himself unduly, Chalamet really does give the 21st century's defining portrait of what it truly means to be a horny, sulky teenager on holiday, with time on your hands and the world at your feet. I still maintain this isn't the most dramatic of movies: for a queer-leaning coming-of-age tale set in the early 1980s in a notoriously macho country, the stakes are strangely low, because absolutely no-one on screen seems opposed to Elio and Oliver coupling up. (The kid's parents - Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar - are real sweethearts; right through to dad's closing words of wisdom, it's a film set back then, but informed by a very modern set of attitudes, which takes another edge off it.) What it finally is, after all the fuss and buzz, is no more or less than a nice movie, one that puts us alongside people (and actors) we like in a place we might want to visit or revisit every once in a while. As any archaeology student worth their MA could tell you, it's not the first movie to do that; and though market forces may presently be against this, it almost certainly won't be the last.

Call Me By Your Name is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Sony Pictures, and is now streaming on Netflix. 

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