When thinking about this film, the first thing that comes to mind is the music. Perhaps that’s a bit of an odd place to start considering the buzz this film has gotten but, with John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction overture setting the tone early, it’s evident that music plays a large role in shaping this narrative. The soundtrack is littered with 80s Euro-pop, including the Psychedelic Furs Love My Way which quite literally halts the plot altogether so Armie Hammer’s character can take a dance break in the middle of a small Italian street scene. The juxtapositioning of period-specific pop music against carefully selected classical compositions helped to create very distinct moods for particular settings but, more importantly, reflected the internal arrangements of the two main characters. Bringing things together, Sufjan Stevens composed some beautiful original songs for the film, including Visions of Gideon closing out the film as the final credits roll. Director Luca Guadagnino spoke with Billboard about the role of music in the film which you can read more about here, if you’re so inclined.
This is the story of Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a teenage boy who finds love in summer romance with one of his father’s grad students during the summer of 1983 in a small Italian town. I’ve heard it described as a gay coming-of-age film. The grad student, Oliver (Hammer), has an air of smugness surrounding him and initially rubs Elio the wrong way, although that may have been due to some internal turmoil. While the pair have received nothing short of rave reviews for their performances, there was much to be desired. Their parts were well acted, Chalamet in particular, but the they don’t share especially strong chemistry and neither makes for captivating viewing without the other. In that light, they work best together and their romantic interaction was much more physically intimate than anticipated but it’s a slow burn. The painful anticipation is most notable when Elio violently ravages a peach in sheer sexual frustration. Once it does finally reach that point the falling action isn’t far behind, effectively stripping out any kind of reward for audience patience. What follows is mostly predictable but at least feels grounded in experience.
With everything on the table for this young man, and the journey we’re on with him as the audience, it’s a bit surprising to see that the most impactful moment belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg playing Elio’s father. In the midst of the most tumultuous moment in his son’s life, Mr. Perlman delivers a strikingly honest and reflective monologue about how he perceived Elio’s relationship with Oliver. That moment serves as a surrogate summary but also takes the opportunity to deliver the moral of the story, which isn’t commonplace storytelling in cinema.
This wasn’t an easy story to tell. Evidenced by the strangely paced and often awkward dialogue by James Ivory, who was tasked with adapting the 2008 André Aciman novel of the same name. Even the film’s titular conversation piece is a square peg in a round hole. Further complicating the narrative, Oliver’s purpose for visiting is, at best, incomplete. He spends almost the entirety of the film not actually helping Elio’s father with anything, with only brief allusions to some historical context. Eventually they are seen dredging a picturesque beach for artifacts from a sunken ship, but their work doesn’t carry much contextual relevance to the film as a whole…aside from sensual sculptures of young men.
Clearly, the Italian backdrop plays a large but silent role in framing this love story. There’s some inherent romantic quality in European settings, or at least the perception, and that’s something Gaudagnino understood quite well. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom framed the shots well, utilizing creative and awkwardly angled close ups to cultivate added intimacy…reminiscent of Moonlight in some instances. In lew of strong dialogue, the visual storytelling does an excellent job of conveying a great deal of layered emotions on behalf of the characters.
It’s challenging enough to make a good film, but Guadagnino had the added difficulty of telling a precarious tale. On one hand, the movie has received praise for its quality. On the other, it’s received harsh criticism for the portrayal of what many deem to be an inappropriate sexual relationship. Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24, so there is some ground to question the appropriateness of their acquaintance. However, if that’s the focal point of your critique then you’re likely missing the bigger picture. This isn’t a tale of pedophilia or statutory rape. It’s about self discovery. While Elio is a young man and not an adult by the American definition, there is no question that his involvement with Oliver is consensual. In fact, Elio is the catalyst. So while the relationship may seem improper to some, it seems like a genuine and relatively common experience…which is likely the reason for the novel in the first place.
While the quality of the finished product was well above average, the nature of this film is the probable reason for it’s position. It’s an important perspective to share on a larger scale but, if the story was about a heterosexual relationship between a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old woman, there’s a good chance no one would even know about it. At best, this is a film that cracks the top-10 Best Picture candidates with Chalamet and Hammer not inside the top-5 for their respective categories. Its self aware panache gets in the way of tangible connectivity with the audience, favoring a heavily stylized approach. Regardless, it will likely turn out to be an important piece of filmmaking to be proud of.
Recommendation: If the subject matter isn’t something that automatically turns you off, it can still be enjoyed, but it’s not for everyone. Be warned, it’s slow.