A brand new year deserves a magnificent christening. And what better way to start off this year than rehash some of the best stuff I missed last year? Though I’m mostly up to date on awards cinema, there were a couple films that escaped me. Part of that is the tiring nature of the awards season. It’s not easy to immerse yourself in films constantly galavanting about as some chivalrous social saviors whose knowledge about current circumstances has been graciously bequeathed to us plebeians for our own betterment. Jeez. That’s not to say those films suck, but it seems to me that the true cinematic element, on which these films should be mostly judged is…absent. Every once in a while you have a filmmaker (Innaritu comes immediately to mind), who is so obsessed with the process that whatever message a film conveys is an organic result of the combination of the masterfully-crafted mechanical elements. In other words, you get so lost in the beauty of a film – I could be a film about belly button lint and it would still captivate you (one of my favorite Professors used to say that you could make bad films about the life of the Universe and good films about belly button lint). The key is in the craft. Films are designed a specific way to relay specific information. The formula as of late has leaned towards a model that favors a stories message and tone, leaving the more mechanical elements as secondary factors. But with film, some of the most creative interpretations are born out of mechanical processes.
Think about the 1962 film La Jeteè by Chris Marker. The film is composed almost entirely of still photographs and tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world, whose premise would later be adapted into 12 Monkeys. But it was the unique and creative way the story was told that helped propel it’s already significant plot. Not every plot can be so scintillating. There’s a whole demographic of film which prides itself on the artistic roots from which cinema has sprung. Indie, arthouse, and alternative are all popular descriptors on Netflix, but they tend to be more broadly associated with Zooey Deschanel haircuts, Noah Baumbach quirk, and the mumblecore movement. Whilst there’s certainly some overlap, films about art aren’t don’t always hold particularly artistic merit. That’s not to say Mr. Turner wasn’t a masterpiece or While We’re Young didn’t give an interesting look into the art world, but in terms of their own mechanical properties, they didn’t have to do anything dazzling. On the other hand, there is a section of this genre that deserves the title and perhaps more. Films that are so uniquely beautiful, they shed their commercial layer entirely, giving into the combined artistic elements of the medium. One of these comes around every once in a while and just tends to astonish. To be fair, a good number of the films I reviewed last year had an element of this. Lucky for me, the first film I saw this year managed to exude that as well. That film is Call Me By Your Name.
I had heard the buzz of Call Me By Your Name since the beginning of last year. It had been an early festival favorite and every early look at the film had a heavy Blue is the Warmest Color vibe: socially transgressive, cinematically hip. But by the time I left the theater last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised. Because as much as Call Me By Your Name checked off all the typical boxes in the indie/arthouse genre, it also checked so many more. The story follows a young, European-oriented white kid name Elio played by the ever-so-haughty named Timothy Chalamèe (don’t be fooled, the kid’s a LaGuardia High School New Yorker, through and through) who lives with his academic parents at an Italian villa somewhere in the incredibly picturesque region of Lombardy, Italy. Every summer, his father takes on a graduate student as a sort of apprentice. This particular summer, a young, handsome chin-model (only kidding) name Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, comes to stay with the family. At first, Elio is treated as Oliver’s guide. He takes him around town, shows him the cool spots, etc. The year is 1983, so there’s not much in the way of Yelp or Google Maps to inform your decision. They end up spending enough time together, that Elio starts to grow more and more attracted to the shining blonde wunderkind. The typical awkward social folkways stand in the way of confronting his admired, most notably the fact that he works with Elio’s father, but primarily because it would affirm his own sexuality in the process. Eventually, the two engage in this sweeping, romantic love affair that lasts throughout the course of a six-week summer that is a coming of age story for the younger Elio and a powerful romantic staple for the older Oliver. There’s plenty to read into in terms of their relationship and the way that they manage to navigate their complex emotions as both is afraid to reveal oneself to another. But one could spend an entire post dissecting the subtleties of their relationship, the nuances of their actions, and the arc of their characters. The visual delight of the film is just too good to do that.
Some might say the film is just gorgeous by happenstance. It’s got gorgeous actors, it’s filmed in freakin’ Italy, and it benefits from the bizarre color palette of the eighties. It’s like it had a running start. But to be fair, Under the Tuscan Sun or perhaps more recently Zoolander 2 check two of those boxes as well. The biggest thing that Call Me By Your Name uses to separate itself from the pack? It’s sincere. Because plenty of films can make themselves about the aspects of Call Me By Your Name that people cherish – but it doesn’t have to do that. In the world of the film, the beautiful scenery, haunting soundtrack, and unique color treatment are carefully balanced so as to not usurp your attention from any of the other elements in the film. I mean the mise-en-scen in every scene is so perfectly placed and era-appropriate that you don’t even notice it, but you quickly become sutured to the cinematic world in front of you. It’s seamless. And it becomes easy when every frame looks like it could have been an retro Kodak photo taken on your parents summer vacation. That’s where director Luca Guadagnino succeeds.
The magic simplicity and naturalness that comes across in the film was not quite so easy. The beautiful days captured on screen were actually few and far between during a particularly rainy shoot. But none of that really stood out. You’d never notice because you’re so immersed in the visuality of the film – and so much more – you buy into the cinematic magic it offers you, if only for a brief moment. The film is a true sensory film in the boldest sense of the world. It tries to be as visceral as possible within it’s two-dimensional box. The visuals are, obviously, pleasant (owing to the landscape and the people). But the visuals are also so pervasive and descriptive that they almost permeate into other sensory realms entirely. For instance, the images of the beautiful villa that they stay in, lined with a verdurous green exterior appears almost as pungent as it probably is. In other words, the damn flowers are practically popping off the screen. Then we come to one of the under-appreciated elements of the film: sound. Where do you even begin? The music is hauntingly pleasant. Sufjan Stevens helps provide a soundtrack which is meditative without being all-consuming and it pairs perfectly with the mood on screen. And if that wasn’t enough, the actual sound is really well done. Every fork clink, peach-bite, and bird-chirp comes together to create this lovely audioscape which is so enthralling, you feel a seamless bind to the film in front of you. There were moments where you genuinely felt like you might be on drugs.
The saddest part about Call Me By Your Name isn’t the heartbreaking ending – it’s the fact that this is the only time you’ll get to see a film quite like this. It’s this strange outlier. A single island paradise in the middle of the ocean. When you leave the theater, you feel as if you’re leaving a friend who you may never see again. But that’s also the beauty of Call Me By Your Name: it exists in a universe of it’s own. It invites you to enter for an ephemeral celebration of love in all of it’s lovely sensory forms and then it lets you go as soon as you come to appreciate it. This kind of perfectly parallels Elio and Oliver’s love – an ephemeral, beautiful entity which exists and leaves you with daunting poignance the second it leaves. Sure Guadagnino has fiddled with the idea of a sequel…. And, for many of us, so have we! Just search up Call Me By Your Name on your newsfeed and prepare to read little about the current film being honored at countless awards show, but plenty of speculative headlines toying with potential ideas for the film’s sequel. After all, who wants to let a good thing die while it’s still so good? But something tells me that, like Elio and Oliver, this film was specifically designed to allow us to smell, taste, touch, hear, and feel love, while recognizing that like life itself, it one day must leave us. At the end of the film, Elio’s father (the professor), takes a moment to reflect with his son on just how unique his relationship with Oliver was and how something like that only comes around once in a lifetime. There’s certainly a slew of films by European filmmakers like Bunuel and Bertolucci which capture some semblance of this pure, unfiltered sense of romance. They spend extra time crafting their own little universe that seems all too inviting not to go in. But we live in a day and age where we struggle to let good things die and that can be a big problem. Because for films like these, they hold so much more value as a poignant memory. It’s so much better for us to think of it as this beautiful thing that existed within it’s own realm and died within the same measure.
Maybe Call Me By Your Name will go on to win an Oscar and Guadagnino will make some statement catapulting it into Oscar infamy. Or maybe it disappears entirely within the span of a few years. If the film had anything to say about our relationships, it notably demonstrated how love (and the beauty that it encompasses) sometimes leaves us – and that’s when we realize what it really was all along. It wants us to follow Oliver and Elio’s footsteps without tracking them down. After all, just because we were invited to take a small and special glimpse into their world, doesn’t necessarily mean we were invited to be apart of their world. Call Me By Your Name had many lessons, but more than anything it left impressions. Those impressions weren’t necessarily plot-oriented. Sometimes, they were visual. Sometimes they were auditory. And at their best, they were a fusion of both and more. But if I remember it for anything years from now, it will be the beauty captured onscreen as well as the graceful way it came and went. And if an Armie Hammer movie can leave that kind of impression on me, then we’re all in trouble! Because something tells me this will also be the last time I call him by his name (or really mention him at all).