'Call Me by Your Name' film review: Fraudulent 'love' story mistakes lust for romance
Imagine a coming-of-age romance with all the elements of a cinematic winner: elegant performances, a beautiful setting and intimately personal drama. Its individual moments are carefully honed and its third act taps into the turbulence of first love. Now imagine - with all that in place - the film somehow forgets the minor detail of establishing a sincere emotional connection between its lead characters -- as is the case with "Call Me by Your Name" (opening in additional cities Dec. 22).
In short: Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) begins a relationship with his father's research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) as he explores his emerging sexuality. Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar and Esther Garrel also star.
The marketing for "CMBYN" will have the audience believe it is some sort of sweeping romance. Set in the romantic backdrop of northern Italy, two young men finding one another and dipping their toes into an unexpected attraction. But this is simply not the truth with "CMBYN" - a film that fraudulently taps into powerful feelings and actually, quite by accident, makes a strong case against its own protagonist.
Just to get it out of the way, "CMBYN" is a finely crafted cinematic work. Chalamet deserves universal acclaim for his bold performance - he holds is own along side the much more experienced Hammer and Stuhlbarg. This is a beautifully composed work, laying its cinematography and score together to craft a rich and idyllic romantic backdrop. It is worth stressing the film's gorgeous and textured aspects - which only makes its critical missteps all the more disappointing.
Without going down the road of spoilers, "CMBYN" is a first and foremost a story of first love. The burgeoning sexuality gives the story some tension - but strip away the same sex or even age aspects to the story and this is primarily the relationship between Elio and Oliver. As the relationship progresses, their relationship becomes sexual in nature - but its true crescendo comes in the film's closing scenes. Stuhlbarg is gifted a quietly powerful and profound monologue - one of the very best of 2017 - and he delivers it with such genuine love and a light touch. The closing scenes - the true emotional pay off for "CMBYN" - relay completely and absolutely in emotionally resonating with the audience. The film, through means of evocative moments, strives for emotional truth.
If "CMBYN" is designed to evoke sincere and universal emotion, then it critically and fundamentally fails as a story because the film does not justify the emotions it elicits. Chalamet's performance is so genuine that Elio's ultimate thoughts and feelings are not in question - but the film itself does Elio no favor.
Elio's emotions are so deeply rooted and incredibly personal - but his relationship with Oliver, as presented in the film, does not justify or support his emotions. Their "relationship" apparently has three gears: flirtatious longing, carnal lust and life-changing love.
"CMBYN" does not present a genuine and sincere emotional connection between Elio and Oliver to warrant its ending. It's a "love story" that forgets to reflect a love rooted in an emotional bond. It's a lot of flirting that quickly escalates to sex - and even the sex isn't framed as anything remotely close to romantic.
This story mistakes wanton sex for genuine love. The entire ending of "CMBYN" only has true storytelling credibility if, and only if, the relationship is based on two people connecting on a personal, emotional level. Elio and Oliver's relationship hints at a shared spark based on their intellectual interests - but that is quickly jettisoned. By the end, their "relationship" is defined more by their sexual attraction than their emotional connection. So, even when Elio's emotions feel true in the moment to that character - the story does not support Elio's thoughts and feelings.
As a final insult to the film, "CMBYN" manipulates the audience into relating to Elio - but he's a complete monster to a village girl who is in love with him. It's obvious from her first moments on screen that Marzia (Garrel) is crushing hard on Elio. He strings her along and escalates their relationship - one that parallels his relationship with Oliver. He is thoughtless and uncaring with her heart - and, in the end, it is Marzia that extends an olive branch to Elio. So, Elio is terrible to Marzia - whose only crime is her infatuation with Elio - and the audience is supposed to relate with Elio!?
And just for good measure, "CMBYN" has its own "American Pie" moment.
Final verdict: "Call Me By Your Name" evokes emotions without justifying them on a deeper emotional level. It's hard to connect with Elio's resolution when the relationship in question is primarily - and almost exclusively - defined by their physical relationship. Despite everything going in its favor, "CMBYN" is a love story based on lust focused on an emotional protagonist who is terrible to a girl he's stringing along.
"Call Me by Your Name" opens in additional cities Dec. 22. This romantic drama is rated R for sexual content, nudity and some language and has a running time of 132 minutes.