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Call Me By Your Name (2017); And How a Fabulous Cinematographer Can Make A Mediocre Film Award Bait

January 2, 2018

Call me by Your Name is the type of film that feels like a sentimentalist’s wet dream in cinematic form. One that’s complete with tantalizing images coated in warm natural light that radiates a feeling of contentment back to its viewers. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeproom is largely responsible for this effect and any sense of tenderness that audiences may feel. Shot on 35mm and possessing a keen eye for atmospheric detail, Mukdeeproom’s work allows the images on screen to gush in rich, deep-tones that holds on to fragments of lint and dust floating around. Mukdeeproom is a magician of his craft, transforming the  artificial light used throughout the production of Call Me by Your Name into a soft and sensual lighting source that feels natural to the environment. This feeling of authenticity affects how viewers relate to these characters. Unfortunately, Luca Guadangio’s weak direction prevented me from heralding this as an impressive piece of art or moving in any sense of the word.

Don’t get me wrong, Guadangio is a competent visual storyteller able to conjure realistic performances from his subjects on screen. Together with James Ivory’s script, Guadangio captures tender moments and hanging glances during emotionally charged scenes of dialogue. For instance, a beautifully captured scene in which Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) proves he’s dad of the year by meeting his heartbroken son with love and understanding encouraging him to revel in the passion and pain that love brings. It’s scenes like this that tug at your heartstrings and pulls you into the film. Too bad Guadangio can’t grasp how to capture moments when nothing is being said.

Audiences follow Elio (Timotheé Chalamet), a teenage Jewish American in 1983 spending his summer in the Italian countryside with his family. The son of wealthy intellectuals, Elio spends his leisure time reading books and composing music. His summer gets shaken up when an American graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), joins his family as a personal research assistant to his archaeologist father. What begins as a contrarian relationship between Elio and Oliver soon develops into a sexual attraction, despite Elio’s blossoming relationship with a friend Marzia (Ester Garrel). The two men embark on a seemingly secret fling that grows more passionate as Oliver’s days with the family wanes creating complications in matters of the heart.

But Call Me by Your Name is too inconsistent in its filmmaking style and character development—which were largely responsible for snatching me out of the film— to prompt any pure emotional connection from developing. I’ll even go out on a limb to say that any feeling of romanticism felt toward this film is due to Mukdeeprom’s wash of nostalgia and love over these dry, underdevelopment moments. By the time the film comes to its meditative and extremely personal ending, I felt confused by the sounds of sniffles around me in the theater as I couldn’t understand how anyone made a connection to these characters.

Guadangio makes thematic decisions that serve little to no purpose or make sense (the insertion of vocal tracks halfway into the film for one). He has a penchant for focusing on objects and moments when these objects and moments don’t possess a clear purpose to the story. In one scene, a deadline is given to Elio, a deadline so important that all day he continually checks his watch and asks for the time (the bright sunlight during these scenes already answers his inquiries). As the deadline approaches he is shown entertaining guests while the camera focuses on his watch, which is off. This happens multiple times throughout the sequence leading to a heighten sense of tension as we anticipate the likelihood that Elio will miss his deadline. But that’s not the case and time becomes absolutely irrelevant to the scene. Multiple times this happens throughout the film with Guandangio zooming in here and focusing for longer than usual there adding a false sense of tension to scenes only to reveal continuous monotony as the story drudges on.

Which leads to my biggest gripe with Call Me by Your Name. Nothing happens. The little tension that does exist comes from the relationship that develops between Elio and Oliver in a very Sam and Diane—will they won’t they— trope. The film’s sole focus is the sexual awakening of Elio and his blossoming love affair with Oliver. But it takes time for the story to get there which leaves much of the first act and a chunk of the 2nd hanging on quick glimpses into this family’s laid-back summer. On one hand, it’s an aesthetic Xanax that makes you warm and fuzzy over the feeling of serenity that is ever present in the beautiful landscape of the Italian countryside. On the other, it’s a snail-paced build up to a relationship that feels forced and shallow. Oliver’s aloof arrogance throughout the first half of the film doesn’t explain his sudden passion for Elio by the middle, while Elio’s passion for Oliver feels more like a confused admiration rather than love or even lust.

Call Me by Your Name tends to feel too art-house and elitist at times. We are surrounded by these intellectuals who all feel the need to one up each other in the realm of sputtering out facts for no reason other than to show their superiority. The family realize that Olivier will fit in when he matches wit with the father correcting a statement on the origins of the word “apricot” (it derives from German instead of Arabic as the father assumed). When Oliver requests that Elio repeat the beautiful tune he’s strumming on a guitar, Elio responds oddly by showboating his talents as a musician. He takes Oliver to the piano room and proceeds to play various versions of the tune as if *insert classic pianist here* were to play Bach. These moments ramble on for too long from a stable distance and never adds anything to either character except their own sense of self-importance.

I contend that this prevents Call Me by Your Name from being inviting or accessible to a larger audience. It’s a film that inflates the ego of the creators and pats those intellectuals, who unironically enjoyed those moments on the back, since naturally intellectuals and artists will ultimately serve as this film’s core base. Because of this it misses the opportunity to be a sensual coming of age story that’s relatable to anyone who’s fallen in love. Call Me by Your Name lacks the proper tools to be an effective coming of age tale as Elio doesn’t learn anything except heartache. He uses a friend for his own pleasure ignoring her wishes to not get hurt by him. He in turn hurts her without a second thought and there is no atonement for his deed or for any of his truly selfish moments in the film. Neither Elio or Oliver comes of age, they just fall into a sexual relationship filled with passion but no heart. I’d rather this have been a film that leaned into its sexuality instead of playing it in the back and pretending this is a love story when it’s clearly not. But thanks to Mukdeeprom’s tasteful cinematography, I understand why many will think it is.

SEE IT. With reservations and if for nothing else but it’s beauty.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2018 2:11 PM

    Really interesting that you called it’s approach “elitest” …. because I got that impression too. One of the things I loved most about Moonlight was how accessible it felt…which I’m not getting from this one at all. I’ll still see it, although I’ve heard it’s a bore.

    • January 4, 2018 12:13 AM

      Exactly, Moonlight was powerful because it draws you into the setting and let’s you get to know the characters. You don’t have to be gay, or black, or from poverty to understand Chiron’s struggles, the film itself navigates you through it. Call me By Your Name doesn’t do that at all and it really just felt like a pretentious take on a story that could have been good. It’s worth the watch because I know some people that loved it but I think it’s the visuals that makes it so good.

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