When I think of cinematic realism, Luca Guadagnino’s film “Call Me By Your Name” doesn’t immediately come to mind. The plot is simple enough: in Northern Italy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) fall in love during the summer of 1983.
The film is dreamlike, fantastical, and aesthetically beautiful — not the most obvious characteristics of the radical realism seen in the films of Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) or those of Joe Swanberg, a favorite director of mine who tries to recreate reality by forcing his actors to improvise without a screenplay.
The general premise underlying this new wave of realist cinema is that an accumulation of moments and details (often incidental or unremarkable) do more for realism than the exciting plots and cartoonish characters that make Hollywood blockbusters successful.
Guadagnino’s vein of radical realism is not so conspicuous as the other two directors I mentioned. But I believe this subtlety is the very reason Guadagnino’s film is so unprecedentedly realistic and such a joy to watch.
The movie is infectious because of its evocation of fantasy, a kind of romantic dream world that, despite its surrealist elements, reveals the way humans interact with each other in a realistic way. The viewer walks away feeling enriched by the charisma of the romantic world and enlightened by the film’s keen insight into human behavior, especially the unremarkable day-to-day behavior we often forget about.
This is thanks to the actor Chalamet, who carries the movie: a remarkable feat in a film with such minimal dialogue and an abstract structure. He simultaneously conjures the most tortured of romantic emotions and portrays an everyday teenager full of the playfulness that defines the realism of this film.
Chalamet introduces to cinema the act of “play” as a device, such as by using cartoon voices and mock wrestling when interacting with Oliver and by telling jokes and calling names with his character’s parents.
These moments of play are essential to defining the realism of the film, for they capture the most private and the least cinematically probed moments of human interaction. With a lesser actor, it would be easy for them to come off as contrived or overproduced. However, in Chalamet’s hands, these moments are natural and more than charming.
The movie’s relentlessly cool style contributes further to this sense of realism. Guadagnino’s fundamental premise is tasteful emptiness, a pervasive minimalism that centers around nature and landscape. He is more interested in portraits of humans than he is in the mere actions of humans.
His style is also characterized by utter randomness. Guadagnino sometimes includes excessive cuts in a single scene, allows the soundtrack to swell to a fortissimo before abruptly moving to complete silence, and rarely explains how his characters think.
The effect of this ostensible randomness is precisely the dreamlike quality to this film that I had mentioned. Portraiture is substituted for plot: After all, we already know what is going to happen with Elio and Oliver.
It is this randomness that gives the movie its sense of realism. The unrelated moments coalesce into an abstract but profound story of two people. I admire Guadagnino for trusting his audience to find their way through a new cinematic landscape. We are challenged but thankful for it.
That being said, this is not a perfect movie.
Guadagnino’s obsessive insistence on a minimalist aesthetic can, at times, do the film a disservice. While the unrelated portraits of characters are a joy to behold, they cannot carry the narrative. In some moments, conflicts between characters arise abruptly only to end as quickly as they began — unexplained rather than explored. Randomness is fresh, but it is not faultless.
The principal fault, though, is that the central romance is not quite believable. Hammer, charming as he may be, simply doesn’t have the acting chops to go head to head with Chalamet.
Elio falls in love with Oliver for his confidence and intellectuality, but Hammer cannot convince us that Oliver is anything other than the image of himself that Elio lusts after. He cannot rise to become a multi-dimensional moral lover worthy of Elio’s passion.
This is not entirely Hammer’s fault — the lack of dialogue just doesn’t allow for the kind of character development required by this specific story. And what a shame that this is the case, for if the principal story had succeeded, this would really have been some film.
Despite its flaws, this is still one hell of an evocative movie. There is a delightful fascination with sculpture, music, and literature, which provides the simple pleasure of creating an atmosphere of taste.
The setting is choice, the cinematography a wonder, and the soundtrack an elegant combination of Bach, Ravel, and Stevens (Sufjan, that is). And the last 20 minutes are some of the best cinema I’ve seen in a few years.
You should still see it, even if only for the wonder of the North Italian setting. But my bet is that you’ll come away thinking more about your everyday interactions with friends and family. This movie finds the magic in them, and it thinks you ought to as well.
4 / 5