Thursday, February 08, 2018

Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)


And what of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name, his adaptation of Andre Aciman's novel from a screenplay by James Ivory? I mean: two beautiful men, an Italian villa, a sundrenched summer in Lombardy, Italy--what's not to like?

Guadagnino and Ivory did reportedly make changes--stripped away the novel's framing device where Elio (Timothee Chalamet) recalls his attraction for Oliver (Armie Hammer) from a vantage point of some decades later, so as to focus (or so Guadagnino says) on the 'now;' he also dialed down the eroticism in Aciman's text. "It was important to me to create this powerful universality" he explained to the Hollywood Reporter.

The director may have a point: I can imagine a more faithfully written Call Me with an elderly narrator piping in at every other Just no. On the printed page there's room to prepare for and modulate this kind of commentary; on the film screen it's possibly an invitation to wallow in the worst kind of bathos, or respond with unintended laughter. As it is we thrill to the mystery of the 'now:' what does Oliver mean when he rubs Elio's back? How aware is Elio of his own sexuality? What does Elio's father Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) know about the the two young men and their budding possibly mutual attraction and when did he know it? 

The eroticism is a more troubling issue: it's possible to shoot a gay love scene I submit that appeals to folks of any orientation (I'm thinking of the breathlessly erotic opening to Wong Kar Wei's Happy Together) so isn't Guadagnino's attempt at 'universality' a copout? 

The film is a hit, those who object to the lack of explicitness an apparently invisible minority; maybe we're wrong and everyone else is right. Maybe. 

Perhaps the knottiest change wrought on the book are the relative ages of the would-be lovers: Elio in the book and on the big screen is 17 (Chalamet for the record was 20 at the time of shooting, dressed and instructed to act younger) Oliver in the book is 24 on the big screen looks four years older, easy--which may strike audiences in a particular not exactly good manner. Half a dozen ways to justify tthis--for one the age of consent in Italy is 14--but Guadagnino does raise an issue that could have been easily sidestepped with more faithful casting. 

That said the best argument in favor of the filmmaker's choice is the actor himself. Hammer has not bothered to hide his Nordic male beauty throughout his career, often uses it to interesting ends--lampooning the Winklevoss twins (both of em) in David Fincher's The Social Network; literally playing lapdog to an evil queen in Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror; slyly subverting the straightness of straightshooting heroes in The Lone Ranger. Hammer is a smart thoughtful presence onscreen, and his intelligence helps gild his handsomeness, give it an intriguing reserve, spiked with a don't-give-a-damn arrogance; if I were closed off from the world all wrapped up in adolescent angst yes I could do worse than respond to a shoulder rub from Armie Hammer.

The director himself shoots in a leisurely understated fashion that recalls Eric Rohmer's (by way of Nestor Almendros') brilliant Mediterranean countrysides; if there's a marked difference it's that Rohmer dawdled with his characters, slowing the plot to a crawl* to get to know his people better; Guadagnino seems to prefer to keep the plot moving at a brisker pace (I know I know this movie clocks in at two hours twelve but go watch a Rohmer film--most run a little over or a little under a hundred minutes--and see what I mean) at the expense of learning who his people are what they're thinking why they might fall in love. Rohmer was a master at peering past people's surfaces to suggest their knotty richly textured interior lives--or even if they're shallow and have no rich texture inside (think Laurence de Monaghan's Claire), to suggest that we might find them interesting anyway. 

*(I said Rohmer likes to 'slow his plot to a crawl' doesn't mean his films are uninvolving--The Green Ray I submit has one of the most thrilling finales in all of cinema)  

Perhaps Guadagnino's finest moment (Skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) comes when Elio and Oliver wander into a town piazza; walk up to the railings of a World War 1 memorial and separate, Oliver wandering behind the monument while Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's camera follows Elio. Elio intimates: "If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter." "Why are you telling me this?" "Because I wanted you to know." The boy leans against the railing as if in despair; before him a great bronze eagle lies on the ground, its legs splayed out helplessly. He pushes forward, his hand anchored to the railing as if it were his one hope: "Because I wanted you to know," he says over and over again. He looks up and so does the camera: looming over the eagle is a harsh crag and atop this crag stands an equally bronze World War 1 soldier with rock held high above his head, about to crush the eagle's skull. Moment of triumph or defeat? For the soldier, the eagle, Oliver, or Elio? All captured in a single fluid shot, Sufjan Stevens' piano murmuring alongside. 

Of course Rohmer would probably not have employed the camera so audaciously, would probably not have used anything so lushly romantic for a score. He might have achieved a similar effect by simpler more elegant means, without once calling attention to the cinematography or editing--carefully preparing for example the characterization of Jean-Claude Brialy's Jerome through a series of accumulated gestures and lines of dialogue against the climactic moment when he opportunistically presses his hand on Claire's knee--a moment both tragic in its significance and comic in its apparent triviality, lightly executed yet profoundly melancholy. Which is why Guadagnino admits to admiring Rohmer, not the other way around.

First published in Businessworld 2.2.18

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