Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #1

We've saved the best for last: Luca Guadagnino's poignant and haunting "Call Me By Your Name," a story of first love lost and self found with a (huge star-making) lead performance by Timothée Chalamet that's fifty decibels softer than Oldman's in "Darkest Hour" yet infinitely truer, more penetrating and more memorable.

He plays Elio Perlman, the insouciant son of a Classics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator (Amira Casar), who whiles away aimless Northern Italian days taking the air and reading widely in literature and philosophy. At night you can find him at the discotheque or making out among the fruit trees with his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel). Elio's parents express their affection for him without reservation, but extend him a long leash of trust. He answers for nothing and to no one.

Enter Oliver, Dad's tall, blandly handsome grad student (Armie Hammer, typecast), who'll spend the summer of '83 at the family's palazzo helping the prof with his project on Heraclitus. There's no outward friction between Oliver and Elio, though when Oliver's out of earshot, Elio ostentatiously ridicules his trademark American farewell: "Later." But of course, hate is not the opposite of love - indifference is - and indifferent to Oliver Elio is not. He's fond of Marzia, but Oliver kindles romantic and sexual feelings in him - first feelings - and that their object happens to be a man is not particularly remarkable to him or anyone else.

Chalamet is fascinating to watch. As quiet and self-deprecating as Elio is, at any moment you don't know what physical movement he'll make or impulse he'll follow. He's no threat to anyone, but there's a feral quality to him. He's not a movie character waiting for his cues to act in scripted ways, but a (rather exquisite) young man behaving with organically human unpredictability.

Elio's relationship with Oliver unfolds authentically, two steps forward, one step back. Though this is anything but an oppression-studies piece, even in the relatively liberated North, the men are (at least sometimes) careful with their PDA's. Oliver is clearly the teacher, Elio the apt pupil eager for lessons. (You have to see the adorably hopeless way he leans in for his first kiss with a man.) And of course Oliver has the benefit of experience and context; he knows what this relationship is in the scheme of his life in a way Elio can only learn the hard way.

Along, there are touchstones that will be recognizable to all gay men: the confusion of an unexpected physical touching; the clandestine "borrowing" of a love interest's shorts for, shall we say, private use; the pleasure of thinking and acting out transgressive thoughts (one of the joys we've lost in the rush to equality). Some of these moments elicit laughter that may be of a slightly different nature for the gays and straights in the audience.

But everyone can relate to the overwhelming feelings of first love, how joyful and perfect it feels in the moment - we two against the world - and how raw and piercing the pain that follows. Guadagnino's previous film was the first-rate "A Bigger Splash," a Mediterranean romantic roundelay among Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson. His approach to love is not to observe detachedly (though he makes perceptions as sensitive as any in memory) but to dive (swoon) in, savoring each sensation of sight and touch and taste and not shrinking from the heartbreak. He paints in goopy, impasto strokes, using three times as much paint as the next guy; you can't touch his work without getting it all over you. Not normally my preferred style, but it works devastatingly well here.

Regular readers know how I feel about Armie Hammer. Never did I think he'd play a key part in the best picture of the year. But his limitations as an actor - which, to be fair, he pushes, especially as the film goes on - only give clarity to what "Call Me By Your Name" wants to be: not so much the greatest love story ever told, but above all a portrait of one young man coming of age, abandoning the protection of adolescence and giving himself over to the possibilities and perils of adulthood.

When summer ends and Oliver leaves, Elio's father confides that he knows about their "friendship" and not only supports Elio but envies him: "I never quite had what you had." The speech comes off almost embarrassingly progressive, but as delivered by Stuhlbarg it's exactly what this particular man would say. (I hope he'll receive Supporting Actor consideration.) That the two men then (erroneously) conclude Elio's mother probably doesn't know is a hilarious comment that escaped the rest of my audience.

In the last scene, after any remaining delusions have been shattered, Elio warms himself by a fire while life in the villa goes on around him. Guadagnino's camera stays on Chalamet, unflinching, through the closing credits. Through his tears, he laughs as recollections and realizations cross his mind. The words of Sufjan Stevens' eerily beautiful "Visions of Gideon" perfectly capture the act of remembrance: "I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video?" I've thought about the scene every day since I saw "Call Me By Your Name." What will become of this lovely young man? The ache of not knowing - of leaving him forever at this moment - I haven't felt for a movie character since William Miller.

Here is the best performance of 2017 in the best film of 2017.

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