Call Me by Your Name Is a Beautiful Love Song with a Hollow Center
I know I wasn’t the only one who thought Anne Helen Petersen’s Buzzfeed article “Ten Long Years of Trying to Make Armie Hammer Happen” seemed a little extra nasty, if not entirely inaccurate.
The piece argued that the only reason Armie Hammer still has a high-profile career is that he’s exactly the sort of rich, bland, white, patrician man the Hollywood machine is built to cosset, at the expense of less-privileged actors who don’t get to make high-profile super-bombs (like The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and keep working.
I had no opinion about Hammer going into the screening of Call Me by Your Name, a new film by Luca Guadagnino, whose past work (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) I really admire.
As I sat watching the story of unexpected passion between a teenage boy and a slightly older male grad student staying with his family at their palatial Northern Italian villa during the languid, dappled, decadent summer of 1983, I thought three things:
(1) James Ivory (Maurice, The Remains of the Day, Howards End), who wrote the screenplay based on André Aciman’s novel, is the laureate of agonizingly slow-burning love shared by inexpressive people in stately houses, (2) Guadagnino seems able to make the air around this family actually swoon with intellectual fecundity and erotic possibility, and (3) honestly, what is Armie Hammer doing there?
Hammer plays Oliver, the American grad student who captivates the imagination and emotions of young Elio, a musical prodigy poised at the frustrating age when you’re supposed to start choosing a path but you can’t seem to take a step in any direction.
Elio’s budding love for Oliver is predicated not only on the older man’s beauty, but on his confidence, stealth, charisma, and whatever you call that organic, ineffable thing that sometimes happens between people.
Timothée Chalamet (recently seen as the pretentious indie-rock rich kid boyfriend in Lady Bird) is perfect as Elio. He’s coltish one minute, graceful the next, and always one step ahead of everyone. Intelligence streams out of him as convincingly as lust and longing. The question then becomes: Is Oliver, as embodied by Hammer, worthy of Elio’s adoration? I just can’t see it.
He’s handsome and normal and masculine in the way of preppy villains in 1980s movies. But there’s no music in his voice or his physicality. He lacks grace, wit, allure. He’s pure dude—which many people reportedly find hot. But Oliver’s drab masculinity is a bummer in the context of Guadagnino’s concupiscent palazzo.
Maybe that’s precisely what attracts the young boffin who’s grown up surrounded by art and finery. But we’re also meant to believe that, at least for a time, Oliver is just as ardent for Elio, which simply doesn’t ring true.
Hammer wears the boy’s desire as unconvincingly as he does that Star of David pendant around his neck.
This leaves a hole at the center of what would otherwise be—and still, semi-miraculously, is—a very involving, melancholy film. It helps that the very best bit comes near the end: a long, heartrending speech by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) that reframes everything, and makes you long to see the secret other film about this family that lurks at the edges of Guadagnino’s frame.