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Oscar Quest 2018: “Call Me by Your Name”

CMBYN!

The one indie-film theater in Indianapolis has numerous nice touches, including nifty digital poster displays by each screen’s entrance.

Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present, and look forward to pushing that statistic even farther back into cinematic history if only some kindly programmer would — pretty please with sugar on top –bring Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies back into print, or at least show it on basic cable. I mean, just once would be lovely. I refuse to settle for watching someone’s grainy YouTube upload or pay collectors’ prices for a vintage VHS copy.

Some nominees stuck with me for weeks and months after; some were pleasantly surprising; some I could take or leave; and some like Chocolat and The Reader, I’d rather forget forever. It’s entirely possible that one day the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will nominate something that I absolutely, positively refuse to watch (they came close one year), but it hasn’t happened yet. For now, I remain on a roll.

As of February 21st I’ve officially seen all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees, but have only written about two of them, Dunkirk and Lady Bird, which I caught in theaters in 2017. I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover the other seven in full before the Oscars telecast on March 4th, but let’s see how far I can get before I burn out.

Every year I can always rest assured there’ll be at least one Best Picture nominee that I won’t be able to bring up at church. This year the most obvious candidate is Call Me by Your Name. Why not start the attempted writing marathon there?

(Fair warning: mild spoilers ahead. It’s not a plot-twist kind of film, but I dug in on a couple of points.)

Short version for the unfamiliar: In northern Italy circa the mid-1980s, boom boxes and Walkmans are still things, the death of Luis Bunuel is still fresh in some citizens’ minds, and the elderly might still be clinging on to a Mussolini poster or two. Into this beautiful backdrop enters Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as a Jewish-American grad student named Oliver who signs on for a summer job as an archaeologist’s assistant. He lives with the equally Jewish family in their palatial home and its apricot orchard, and helps with cataloging and research and other non-cinematic chores. Oliver gets along with everyone around him — his boss, the boss’ wife, at least one lusty lass in town, and especially the boss’ son. Enter Best Actor nominee Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird) as Elio, an Italian teen with multiple proficiencies in humanities in general and classical music in particular. He’s a hit with the local womenfolk, but not exactly rushing out to woo them all. He’s restless without knowing why, dissatisfied with the status quo but not holding any articulated grudges, and at a loss for focus or drive.

As the long, hot Italian summer rolls on, Oliver and Elio continue spending more time together. Eventually, there’s erotic stuff. But dare they pursue the sparks between them? What price might they pay for The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Elio’s dad and Oliver’s boss is Michael Stuhlbarg, whom you may remember from such films as Doctor Strange and Men in Black 3. He’s also in Best Picture nominees The Shape of Water and The Post, nailing a rare Oscar hat trick.

The only other Western hemisphere native in sight is one-half of an older, brightly suited gay couple played by a Peter Spears, whose previous credits include posing as humorist Robert Benchley in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Very nearly everyone else on the premises is Italian and unknown to me, up to and including director Luca Guadagnino.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Themes and morals along the way may or may not include:

* Yay modern romance!
* Lovers gotta love
* Parents often know their kids better than their kids know themselves
* The end of a summer love affair is not the end of your world
* 17 is the age of consent in so many places that let’s not mention it so hey everyone be cool
* Acting on your impulses won’t always get you murdered, unlike some other past Best Picture nominees we could mention
* Armie Hammer will do whatever it takes for the world to forgive him for Disney’s Lone Ranger
* Mmmmm, apricots

Nitpicking? Films about sexual awakening, sexual coming-of-age, sexual liberation, or sexual themes in the forefront in general are officially Not My Thing, regardless of whether it’s my type or not. In this area I tend to have adverse reactions to movies that enthrall millions of other viewers. This means roughly 60% of the Criterion Collection is outside my boundaries, not to mention every teen sex comedy made after I grew up, along with Game of Thrones. It’s reason #726 why I’ll never be one of the internet cool kids, but it’s where I’m at.

The preceding paragraph was largely copied from last year’s capsule review of Moonlight. It’s applied to numerous past nominees including The Reader, The Full Monty, Dangerous Liaisons, Midnight Cowboy, and doubtlessly some older others I haven’t seen yet. We’ll also revisit that paragraph next week when I get to The Shape of Water and have to explain why I’m one of six geeks worldwide who doesn’t worship its every frame. That level of material reduces my interest to a clinical viewing mode rather than enjoying the film in the way it wishes I would. Again: Not My Thing. This goes triple for one scene that may or may not be an homage to American Pie.

That being said: Call Me By Your Name is relatively low-key for its subgenre. Worries about shaming or violent responses to their relationship motivate Our Heroes to keep their hook-ups more clandestine as they grow more intense…but ultimately, nothing ever comes of their worries. No brutal beatings. No slurs. No lectures. No disapproving looks. No opposing views whatsoever. No physical side effects including nausea, vertigo, loss of hair or appetite. Their only enemies are (a) their own fears and tentativeness while they sort themselves, and (b) the end of summer, when Oliver has to leave town. Everyone in Italy in the 1980s was apparently super extra tolerant, but didn’t really brag about it unless someone asked. Even Elio’s ex-girlfriend at the end is basically like, “Oh, you poor dear, now I get why you dumped me. That’s okay, then!” As ostensibly groundbreaking stories go, the whole thing is peculiarly benign. I imagine that’s refreshing.

So what’s to like? The languorous views of Italian mountainside scenery and preserved architecture make for sumptuous backgrounds regardless of whether or not anyone in the foreground is clothed. That was the main driving force that got me inside the theater. For that alone I wasn’t disappointed.

The period-piece time frame is so subtly woven into the tapestry that it took me a good 30-40 minutes before I was certain of the era. I get cranky whenever a director wields “I Love the ’80s!” nostalgia as a mace against the viewers’ skulls. Eventually the mystery was settled when “Love My Way” fills the dance floor at a club and Oliver attempts to win a Whitest Man in Italy ribbon with gusto. Bonus points for subtle placement of audiocassettes and their distinct racks, a staple of my house for decades and still part of my collection today.

Special acting merit badges go to Timothée Chalamet as the wandering soul in the center of it all. Elio is book-smart, a genius in discerning composer styles, and happy to hand out a Well Actually lecture on the subjects he’s mastered, but then forgets most of his vocabulary whenever he tries to slide into deep emotional candor or even into flighty sweet-talking. Many of us know that excruciating feeling no matter where we land on the spectrum. His final minutes of silent, roiling emotions are fascinating to behold from an acting perspective.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Call Me by Your Name end credits. In fact, there’re barely any “end” credits. The cast-‘n’-crew list is short and lacking in overpopulated visual effects studios, and accompanies an uninterrupted take of Elio staring into a fire while his multiple conflicting feelings ebb and flow and crash into each other across his face. By the time he turns away from the flame at the sound of his mom’s voice, all that’s left are the soundtrack credits, the Special Thanks, the list of Italian product placements, and one final, curious but eminently welcome message: “IN LOVING MEMORY OF BILL PAXTON.”

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