Call Me by Your Name

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Writer: James Ivory


As I was watching Call Me by Your Name, an Oscar winning film that has been almost universally lauded as a landmark of LGBT cinema, one of the things that struck me the most was how far the movie transcended the same-sex quality of its love story. The fact that the two lovers are men is significant and plays an important role in defining their relationship, but the story is ultimately a coming-of-age romance and that simple distinction allowed for a movie that defied what I’ve come to expect from gay cinema. For example, as this film progressed I spent a good deal of time anticipating the obstacle that would inevitably conspire to drive the two lovers apart. Maybe it would come in the form of disapproving parents, a spurned and jealous ex-girlfriend, or maybe an intolerant culture and community. But that never happens, because that’s not what this movie is about. Call Me by Your Name is really a story about self-discovery, sexual awakening, and first love.

Another way that this film subverts expectations is that it doesn’t really have a plot. The movie progresses at a leisurely pace that Guadagnino advances bit by bit with the meticulous patience of a sculptor as it transitions between scenes without appearing to drive itself along any clear narrative line. There is no tangible objective, journey, or force pushing things along, the film simply moves from moment to moment and lets them play out in their own time. The scenes more or less blend into one another the same way that long summer days often do and the cuts between them are motivated more by emotion than they are by events. The movie is set in the summer of 1983 in an idyllic, eternally sunny region of northern Italy and mainly follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). Elio often finds himself bored by the summer and tends to spend his days reading, playing the piano, and picking fruit. He lives with his Jewish-American father (Michael Stulhbarg), a professor of archaeology, and Italian mother (Amira Casar), a translator, in their country home. Despite his youth, Elio is well-read and a musical prodigy and possesses an intellect and wit beyond his years. He is also awkward and insecure, but has learnt to hide his anxieties behind a mask of sophistication.

Every year his father invites a student to spend the summer with their family to assist him with his academic research. This year he invites 24-year-old American doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver is tall, handsome, confident, and charming; he is everything that Elio isn’t (or doesn’t believe himself to be). Oliver also has a largely carefree personality. He is effortlessly likeable and attractive to many of the Perlmans’ friends and he has a typically American habit of abruptly ending conversations and leaving the dinner table with a nonchalant, “Later”. He and Elio, finding that their personalities somewhat clash and that they haven’t got much in common, are initially prickly towards one another. Nevertheless they are drawn to each other: testing each other out, pushing out against one another, and wondering what the other thinks of them. Elio at first doesn’t know what to make of Oliver with his casual demeanour and may not even realise at first that what they are doing is flirting. There are looks and caresses that he doesn’t know how to interpret and feelings that he seems reluctant to confront. Over time however Elio does become acutely aware of his attraction to Oliver, thinking of him while he masturbates and sneaking into him room to smell his clothes. Before long Elio and Oliver confess their feelings to each other and embark on a sexual relationship for the remainder of the summer.

The chemistry that Chalamet and Hammer share is electrifying. With the help of Guadagnino’s direction, the two are able to convey a clear attraction that grows and develops over time without ever actually speaking about it until around an hour in. It’s in the way that Oliver’s touch triggers a sensation throughout Elio’s entire body. It’s in the tension that emerges between them as they chat by the pool or on their way into town, as in one scene where Elio relates a night-time rendezvous with his (sort of) girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) in order to gauge Oliver’s reaction. It’s in their exchanged glances and expressions. When we see Oliver with Elio, the way that he looks and composes himself suggests that the 24-year-old understands what is happening better than the 17-year-old, but is hesitant to do anything about because of some unspoken taboo (in this case the taboo has less to do with being attracted to a young man than it does with being attracted to an inexperienced 17-year-old virgin). When they do finally speak openly about the attraction and start acting on it, it is the culmination of all the pent-up emotions they’ve felt to this point and it feels organic and earned.

The love they share is tender and intimate and there is an agonising beauty to the way that these two characters, who have both kept a part of their true selves hidden from even the most important people in their lives, are able to be truly open and free when they are alone together. This is best encapsulated in the moment that gives the film its name when Oliver lies in bed with Elio, looks deeply into his eyes, and says, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine”. It is a bittersweet love they share, not only because they have to keep it a secret, but also because they both realise that it cannot last. Again, this isn’t something either of them says out loud, it’s something that they just feel and we feel it as well in the long takes and the moments of silence. It is a romance that makes itself all the more intensely felt to the viewer because Guadagnino and Ivory do not shy away from showing Elio and Oliver in their most erotic and vulnerable moments, most notably in the film’s controversial and remarkable peach scene.

The beauty of it all is complemented perfectly by the setting and the way it is shot; seldom a close-up is used in this film because Guadagnino wants us to appreciate the scenery and its relation to the characters. The images he and cinematographer Mukdeeprom create are utterly sensual. The sound of leaves gently rustling in the breeze, the look of the water and sweat on everybody’s bare bodies, the warm reds, oranges, and yellows of the Italian sun; all of these are captured with such realness and intensity that it’s almost like we’re actually there. It manages to look sublime and picturesque without also looking artificial. The sights, sounds, tastes, odours, and textures, they all feel tactile, which in turn combats any sense of idealisation or inauthenticity. What we are essentially watching is a memory of a summer long since past and what we see is supposed to be an embellishment of that time, but not to the point that everything seems too perfect. This is a memory that evokes as many feelings of pleasure as it does pain and sadness, and the film’s visual style matches that perfectly.

The romance does ultimately reach an end, as it must, and it is as heartbreaking and poignant an end as one could imagine. When it all seems like it might be too much for Elio, his father reaches out to him with an exquisite monologue that Stuhlbarg delivers eloquently and heartrendingly. The sentiments he shares with his son are as beautiful as anything else we’ve seen or heard in this film and could have been the ideal way to conclude the story if not for the epilogue that follows. The final image we see of Elio is allowed to linger for several minutes as the credits roll and it allows for a full summation of all the emotions that have been felt by him throughout, the deep effect that whole summer has had on him, and the impact his relationship with Oliver has had on the man he will one day become. Call Me by Your Name is an exceptionally beautiful portrayal of love and growth and is one of the most profound and moving films of 2017.

★★★★★

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The Shape of Water

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor


Oftentimes when we think of fairy tales today, we think of children’s stories in the vein of Disney; wholesome fantasies about adventure, love, and imagination that teach us a moral. Historically that hasn’t been the case with this genre. Many of the fables we know today as popularised by the Victorian likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen find their origins in frightful folklore originally intended for adults. Indeed, the Brothers Grimm had to revise their original publication of Children’s and Household Tales upon receiving complaints that their stories were too sexual and violent. There has always been a dark heart to fairy tales, and it is one that del Toro has dedicated his career towards exploring in films like Pan’s Labyrinth. He has always been fascinated by the way fairy tales use monsters and beasts to represent the negative qualities of humanity and has often found these creatures to be profoundly human as a result. In his “fairy tale for troubled times”, del Toro seeks to tell a timeless fable for a modern audience in all of its wonder and darkness.

The film is set in the USA in 1962, an idealistic time in American history. The Second World War was a memory, the country was prospering, and the Kennedys were in the White House. However, beneath that glitzy surface of glory, growth, and glamour the reality wasn’t quite as wholesome. The oft-romanticised 1960s was a nightmarish time, a period when two nuclear superpowers were engaged in an ominous staring contest with the threat of global annihilation hanging in the balance. It was a mythological time for the United States where the ideology of ‘greatness’ contributed towards the intolerance and contempt of those who fell short of the All-American ideal, whether it be because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their disability. It was an age of brutality and prejudice where the outcasts who lived in the margins of society had long been rendered speechless, unable to speak out and make their voices heard. In The Shape of Water this sense of voicelessness is represented literally by the central couple, the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).

Elisa is a cleaner who has long since lost her voice in an accident that left her neck disfigured. She lives alone above the Orpheum Cinema, an old-timey movie theatre that plays classic films to an almost empty auditorium. The one person she spends any time with when not at work is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an ageing, balding, closeted man whose days consist of black-and-white movies starring Betty Grable and Shirley Temple and fantasies about the young, handsome waiter at the local pie emporium. At night she works shifts at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore where the scientists are laboriously trying to work out how to get to the moon before the Russians. Working alongside her is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a matronly, vivacious African-American woman who speaks more than enough for the both of them. One night the facility receives a delivery in the form of an aquatic, humanoid creature. Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study the creature that was once revered as a god by local Amazonian tribes and see what they can learn from it. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the military official in charge of the facility, however sees it as an affront to both man and God and orders the doctor to exterminate and dissect it.

Elisa encounters the Amphibian Man and sees not a monster or a god, but a forlorn being, as lonely and as voiceless as herself. She reaches out to the creature and shows him kindness, feeding him boiled eggs, playing him musical records, and teaching him sign language. She learns that the Amphibian Man is an intelligent creature capable of thought, reason, and empathy and that her affection for him is reciprocal. They form a bond with each other akin to Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête was clearly a source of inspiration), except that here the romance does not depend on the beast’s transformation into a handsome prince. The star-crossed lovers are attracted to each other as they are, both spiritually and physically. As fairy tales were modernised in the 19th and 20th centuries and targeted towards children, a point was made to remove the sexual content and connotations of such fables as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood so that these stories might reflect the chaste (or, if you prefer, repressive) values of their times. In his contemporary adult’s fairy tale, Del Toro feels that it is more honest to allow the couple’s romantic feelings to manifest themselves as sexual desires and does not shy away from portraying it. Beauty and the Beast consummate their love and it is treated and shot like a romantic coupling between two souls, rather than in any kind of a fetishised or exploitative way.

However, in the midst of this “tale of love and loss” there is “the monster who tried to destroy it all”. This is Strickland, a demonstrative, almost stereotypical, symbol of the toxic masculinity of 1960’s America. He lives in the suburbs with his blonde 1950s wife (with whom sex is silent, dour, and missionary) and has two kids, a military career, and a Cadillac. He is also a sadistic bully who preys on the ‘Others’ and demonises them. He eroticises Elisa’s disability and sexually harasses her, he is unabashedly racist towards Zelda, he viciously dominates the physically inferior Dr. Hoffstetler, and he gets glee and elation from torturing the defenceless creature with his cattle prod. At one point he pushes the Amphibian Man too far and provokes him into lashing out, losing two fingers in the process. As the rotting flesh on his hand deteriorates and spreads with each passing day, so does the rot devour his soul more and more like a cancer until it finally drives him well and truly into a vengeful, furious state of madness. He is a familiar type of villain from the Gothic literature and art that has inspired del Toro throughout his career, a man whose heart is so black that he proves himself the real monster of the story, but an updated one whose outdated yet prevalent values are as relevant today as they are harmful.

Like many fairy tales, The Shape of Water is not a very probable story. As well as drawing on elements of fantasy, it takes illogical leaps in its plot and a lot of what follows suspends belief. But then, that’s why the magic of it all is so crucial. One of the great things about fairy tales as a genre is that their stories don’t have to follow logical plots if the emotions are strong enough to lead the way instead (The Wizard of Oz and La Belle et la Bête are both great examples of this). Part of the reason why this film succeeds is because the actors do such a tremendous job of conveying the emotions driving their actions. Hawkins is so expressive in a role that goes entirely unspoken (save a musical fantasy sequence in the style of Ginger Rogers and an aquatic Fred Astaire) she could have been a Hollywood silent movie star had she been born a century earlier. There were scenes where Elisa spoke more with her eyes than any actress could possibly have said with a hundred pages of dialogue. Opposite her, Jones (who has brought so many of Del Toro’s monsters to life in his previous films) delivers a remarkable physical performance as the Amphibian Man, a creature who speaks through musical cries, expressions, and movement.

Another reason The Shape of Water works so well as a fairy tale is the dreamlike atmosphere del Toro and his team were able to create. The film often employs watery imagery from the constant rainfall to the aquatic blues and greens of the sets and costumes to the dim lighting and wavering shadows. We see all this through the lens of a camera that hovers as if it were floating and which flows seamlessly across scenes. It all invokes the feeling of being submerged in the underwater world that we see in the opening scene and watching the film often felt like watching a dream. Accompanying that otherwordly sense throughout is the film’s musical score, a wistful composition that expresses what cannot be said in words. The feelings of melancholy and wonder that emerged were so overwhelming I couldn’t help but be swept away by the magic of it all. The Shape of Water is a beautiful, moving tale of love and loss and of finding your voice. It is a breathtaking, stunning picture that conjures profound emotions and explores the enigmas and ethics of humanity in the way that only fairy tales can.

★★★★★