Thursday, May 10, 2018

Cinema Filings: Call Me By Your Name -- Updated

Narratively and compositionally, Call Me By Your Name offers a wealth of material for cinephiles to study. Though not a perfect film, it is an interesting and evocative one that overcomes its ambiguities with strong performances and emotional intelligence. These notes assume the reader has seen the film at least once. (BECAUSE I TRY TO DEAL WITH EVENTS IN THE FILM CHRONOLOGICALLY, SCROLL DOWN FOR NEW MUSINGS.)

*One of the film's most reproduced images is of the film's young protagonist Elio Perlman, elbows resting on a stack of books, framed by an open window in his family's Italian villa, where doors and windows are often propped open or batted by breezes, suggesting an openness to the setting and those who live there, even though some of the residents have secrets.

*Many scenes take place at a dining table set up just outside the villa's kitchen; an orchard of apricot, cherry and peach trees is just beyond. Food is ever-present as is the easy exchange among guests, who appear to be many. And this, again, lends a liberality and civility to the setting and its denizens.
*Among the film's many beauties is the fluidity of language among Elio, his parents and their summer resident, the American graduate student Oliver, whom Elio is drawn to. Director Luca Guadagnino stages an opening scene with the Perlmans speaking alternatively English, French and Italian. This is repeated in later scenes and is matched by the presence of Italian and French newspapers in the home. Theirs appears to be an international consciousness, probably one that is foreign to many audiences in the U.S.

*Annella Perlman is a translator, who one afternoon reads to her husband and son from a German edition of a Renaissance romance. The three are gathered on a couch in the villa's music room / study while rain pours outside. The staging suggests this is a familiar setting for them. The text, about a lovelorn and indecisive young knight, resonates with Elio and seems to light a fire under him to resolve his own matters of the heart. And, indeed, he tries in the film's next scene.

*Though celebrated for its candid representation of the intimate moments between Elio and Oliver, the film also revels in ambiguity that contributes to its in medias res tone. What had been the nature of Elio's relationship with Marzia before Oliver arrived? Where was Oliver spending his nights? How much did the Perlmans know when they sent Elio off with Oliver to Bergamo? Though not deal breakers, these questions do linger.

*And what to make of Marzia? For me, this wonderful character, played with even tenderness by Esther Garrel, epitomizes the film's commitment to peace and grace. Her "friends for life" scene with Elio was a balm for an audience left raw by Oliver's departure. 

*Like the best of film, CMBYN operates on many levels -- the visual and the auditory. Having extraordinarily attractive performers can eclipse other subtler narrative elements. For example, the tolling of bells -- town square, church or dinner -- punctuates several scenes in the film and complements the filmmaker's effort to ground the action in a time and place. These sounds, while recessed, can be as meaningful as the saying of the boys' names -- whether during introductions, lovemaking or that fateful winter phone call. They're all markers.

*Cinematographer Mukdeeprom's camera lingers on details of the film's setting and the characters' faces, hands and feet to strip away artificiality and decrease the distance between viewers and subjects. Oliver's foot floating refracted in the villa's pool, Elio's bare feet as he leaves the pool to challenge the "usurper" at picking apricots and, later, as the two men's feet find each other during their midnight tryst. These shots, while part of the film's sensuality, also disclose the humanity of these subjects. 

*It's not entirely clear in the film why Oliver was so overbearing during his first days with the Perlmans, but Elio seems the only one put off by the casual nature of the student's interactions; Oliver seems brash and self-involved. The scene at the volleyball game crystallizes this. Oliver, taking a break from his noisy display in the game, grabs the bottle of water from Elio and then gets "handsy"with him, a gesture that is misread. Professor Perlman might actually be onto something when he says in the next scene that Oliver might be "shy." Perhaps this "shyness" is unease mixed with a desire to be liked but not truly known. Of course, Elio cracks that egg -- eventually.

*Metaphors can be stretched beyond reason but one resides in Annella's peach orchard that is difficult to resist. Elio's discovery of a form of carnal knowledge with the aid of fruit does allude to the Garden of Eden and the introduction of sin to the world. Elio's response after being discovered by Oliver does reflect shame and disgrace, though Oliver himself is amused and intrigued. The shot of Elio plucking the fruit is nearly biblical.

*The short but important interlude after Elio's Bach "recital" is the scene of him scratching out scolding notes to himself about his earlier treatment of Oliver. "I was too harsh" and "I thought he didn't like me." This scene gets to some of the interior nature of the source novel, which is narrated by Elio, and reveals the vulnerability hiding behind the bravado.

*Oliver's brief comment about "hiddenness" he shares with Elio from the manuscript he was preparing strikes an ironic note, after the fact, as both men were at the time hiding, perhaps not as well as they imagined, secrets from one another. Hiddenness is also present in Elio's secret loft in the villa where he consorts with Marzia and later Oliver. And, of course, in his furtive snooping about Oliver, and his rather feral encounter with Oliver's swimming trunks (a much closer encounter was in the novel).

*When the power went out at the villa that rainy afternoon, Professor Perlman told a disconsolate Elio that he and his mother were always there for Elio if he ever needed to talk. In the next scene, during the Piave confession, Elio told Oliver he was confiding in him because there was no one else he could talk to. A truly strange reveal given what the professor said. As attractive as Elio is, the character also had more than a tinge of the callow manipulator in him -- lying to the girls and crabbing about his mother -- which actually made the character all the more believable.

*At Monet's Berm, Oliver tells Elio he likes the way he says things. I liked the way everyone spoke in the film. One of the true delights of the picture is how carefully the dialogue avoided banality. Even the raucous lunch time exchange about Italian politics was spicy and rococo, which made Oliver and Elio's fairly terse exchange after their midnight rendezvous all the more endearing. "I just wanted to be with you" is probably as lovely and honest a sentiment that can be shared with a loved one. 

*Elio's nosebleed after Monet's Berm was an elegant narrative red herring. To those who were brought up on motion pictures in which tragic figures were felled by virulent diseases, Elio's nosebleed was probably viewed as presage to a cancer diagnosis. In fact, it served to more fully awaken Oliver's suppressed feelings for Elio but also pressed Oliver into the uncomfortable position of revealing his canard with the young Parisienne Chiara. This would explain Oliver's hasty retreat from the villa when Chiara and Marzia arrive and his conspicuous absence the following day, which led to the fateful midnight tryst.

*The other passionate love affair in CMBYN is the film's infatuation with books. The famous shot mentioned at the top of this posting -- which actually does not appear in the film -- suggests not only Elio's voracious appetite for the written word but the life of the mind all of the residents of the villa embrace. Elio not only reads but he notates in the margins as he does, suggesting an intellectual maturity that early in the film may have actually outgrown his emotional maturity. By film's end, they were pretty much on par.

Elio's Bach "recital" was an obvious choice when clips were distributed for the talk shows because it shows Chalamet's "virtuosity" at the piano and a bit of the dynamic between the two characters early in the film. To my ear, it actually might be the stagiest of the scenes in the movie; it feels like both men are playing roles within roles -- Oliver and Elio were clearly trying to impress one another -- which adds to the levels of complexity in the narrative but might also feel more inauthentic than is needed at that juncture.


*The Lake Garda "truce" is an important moment in the film, also captured in stills (see below), that signals an ending to the sparring between Oliver and Elio, at least for the moment. Elio's earlier comment at breakfast about "almost" having sex with Marzia the night before and his fairly transparent attempt to show he did not resent Chiara's interest in Oliver did little to stanch either his or Oliver's clear interest in the other. (Perhaps that's what all the shouting was about at Garda that evening.) Sexual orientation is never addressed straightforwardly, but one would infer that Elio and Oliver were pretty "fluid" in their sexuality, even though Oliver early on would rather not talk about "those things." That declaration was followed by the kiss at Monet' s Berm. Actions and words?

*At the end of the Crema piazaetta scene (below), Oliver rises and prepares to leave. Elio, uncertain, rises too, assuming, if we're to read his facial expression, that they're continuing on their journey or returning to the villa. As they remount their bicycles, Elio loses balance and leans into Oliver, who steadies him by placing a hand firmly on his shoulder for perhaps a beat too long, which foreshadows the later massage scene at the volleyball game.  A gesture we would discover three quarters of the way into the film that was Oliver's way of signalling his affection. The film is a festival of ambiguity -- allusion and elusion, miscues, non sequiturs, elliptical remarks that trail off. Just like life.

*The interiority of CMBYN is what drives much of my fascination. What's going on inside these people who are both open with their living space and so guarded with their interior space? This guardedness is mirrored in the "speak or die" passage from The Heptameron and in Oliver's face as he and Elio discuss it. It is not clear, and it shouldn't necessarily be, what Oliver is thinking or his intention in inviting Elio to accompany him to town that afternoon. The film's narrative is silent, which leaves it to viewers to infer motives if we are inclined to do so. However, one thing is certain from the exchange before they departed, neither welcomed the idea of being separated for the afternoon. 


*In a small but not incidental scene early in the film, Elio is in the villa's pool while Oliver is swimming laps. It's one of many occasions when the audience watches the watcher (Elio). When Oliver stops to ask Elio what he's thinking about, Elio is deliberately unresponsive: "I'm not going to tell you." As with so much else in the film, this exchange is ambiguous; it might be Elio's way of masking his interest or punishing Oliver for being so outgoing and charming or a way of teasing him to get attention. Whatever the case, it doesn't work because when Oliver gives up, Elio gives in.  These smartly observed moments, pulled from the novel's brilliance, are what collectively make the film so resonant and real.

*The crucial Piave war memorial scene was craftily staged but curious in its affect, as Oliver, so assured through most of the film to that point, seemed to retreat from Elio's advance. It was here that the two started speaking in code, acknowledging their attraction but not speaking about it plainly so as not to cause trouble for Oliver. Insisting that Elio cooperate seemed both sensible and weak. Of course, Oliver would redeem himself, if only briefly, at Monet's Berm.

*The promotional shot of Elio and Oliver walking bicycles down a village street does not appear in the film, although the pairing could easily be imagined in that story space. The shot does suggest to me an unsettling obsession on Elio's part (it's difficult to imagine the character being so transfixed) and a degree of obliviousness that Oliver could not credibly claim after Monet's Berm. Still, the film's hint at a reversal of the theme of Mann's A Death in Venice is framed nicely here.

*Elio's invitation to Oliver to go swimming the morning after their midnight rendezvous likely rang with deja vu for some viewers. Oliver extended the same invitation to Elio, under quite different circumstances, near the beginning of the film  / the summer. At that time, Oliver, presumably returning from a night out, found the lone Elio in his bedroom with idle hands. Elio, startled by the brash American's intrusion and puzzled by his interest, agrees to go swimming though he clearly would rather not. And it was then that the cogs of their companionship began to turn. Because so much is hidden in the film, Elio's suggestion that they go swimming might be viewed as a statement that he's ready to move on from the night before, wash it away, if you will. The next scene at the river, Elio is swimming apart from Oliver, which leaves questions for Oliver, and the viewer, about what had just transpired between the two.

*In CMBYN's story world, people have names and not labels.  Neither Elio nor Oliver self-identifies as homosexual or bisexual during the course of the film. Their "more than a friendship," as Professor Perlman describes it, doesn't seem to exist on a social or political plane. It just exists. It might very well be that what grows between them, while first stifled by Oliver's fear of discovery, is so organic to them as men, and how they choose to experience the world, that the sexual component is just that -- a component of their friendship, an intense component but a component nonetheless. That's not to suggest the characters are not gay or bi or lie somewhere else along the sexuality continuum. And one might imagine that their physical relationship might have taken off quicker had either of them been "out." But that would have been an entirely different, and not altogether interesting, journey.

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