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While his name might not be immediately recognisable to audiences, let alone a box office draw, consummate character actor Michael Stuhlbarg’s face is instantly familiar, a reassuring presence which promises to imbue even the most peripheral role with a performance that elevates it above the humdrum, and his appearance in Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name is no exception.
Stuhlbarg plays Lyle Perlman, a professor of antiquities summering in provincial Italy with his translator wife Annella and precocious son Elio in a devoted and academic family unit which takes as much delight in reading a German translation of a 16th century French short story aloud in English as discussing domestic politics over dinner in voluble, vino-fueled Italian. Language is at the fore throughout the film, playing out in conversations where everything and nothing is said, tongues entwining and overlapping in dialogue and subtitle, including the good-natured initiation rite passed with ease by Oliver, the student Lyle has invited to spend the summer as his live-in assistant.
Oliver instantly charms everyone in town with his movie star looks and a worldly manner totally at odds with that of the bookish and taciturn Elio, who is at the same time learning his first lessons in another language: that of the heart, the language Call Me By Your Name speaks most fluently.
Guadagnino’s signature food porn is toned down, his camera lingering instead on the sun-drenched bodies of these two young men as they explore both the languid pastoral created by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and their burgeoning passions, Timothée Chalamet gangling and lean as Elio, Armie Hammer toned and glowing in ridiculous ‘80s shorts and oversized shirts as Oliver. In contrast with their youthful, athletic frames Lyle’s distinguished white-flecked beard and plump belly reflect a man at ease with himself and his position in life, one who indulges in its pleasures.
As with so many of Stuhlbarg’s film roles, Lyle Perlman is not the focus of the narrative, but vital to its progression. Think of his harried Agent Halpern in 2016’s Arrival driving the movie’s ticking clock towards its climax, or 2015’s Steve Jobs as his Andy Hertzfeld saves the day at the first demonstration of the Apple Macintosh. In 2013’s Blue Jasmine the lechery of his Dr. Flicker pushes Jasmine to try and better herself, and his joy-filled clairvoyant alien Griffin in 2012’s Men In Black 3 guides Agents J and K to the restoration of the timeline and salvation of Earth, while in 2011’s Hugo his gently erudite René Tabard saves film itself, Stuhlbarg delivering the film’s third-act history lesson with a contained delight which neatly sidesteps the waiting trap of stopping it dead. In television Stuhlbarg has shone too, most recently as bumbling sidekick Sy Feltz in the third season of Fargo, and notably as New York kingpin Arnold Rothstein in four seasons of Boardwalk Empire. Without the burden of carrying these projects as principal performer, Stuhlbarg instead integrates with the ensemble, inhabiting each characters’ costume and styling, rounding them out with his distinctively mellifluous delivery and a deliberate physicality honed while studying with Marcel Marceau.
The exception, of course, the one time Stuhlbarg has been front and centre as the undisputed lead, is 2009’s A Serious Man (setting aside for the moment the intrinsically ensemble nature of the Coen brothers’ films and their names above the title), and in Larry Gopnik he plays a character who bears both parallels and contrasts with Lyle Perlman.
Both men are Jewish, professors and fathers, but while the Gopniks are defined by their faith to the point of stifling insularity, the Perlmans consider themselves Jews of discretion, completely at ease in the secular world. Each man’s approach to understanding that world fall into differing camps of hard and soft science, Larry occupying himself with the undead cats of quantum physics as a cultural revolution passes him by, Lyle immersing himself in the immutable artifacts of dead civilisations without disengaging from the modern world beyond academia. As a parent, Larry is at a loss in the face of adolescent rebellion, while Lyle accepts it with a good grace born of recognition. Stuhlbarg draws each character distinctively and precisely, never falling into caricature but loading even their smallest gestures with keenly-observed humanity.
For much of its running time, though, it’s not apparent that Call Me By Your Name demands Stuhlbarg’s particular skills: surely any number of actors could play the avuncular paterfamilias, the attentive host, the animated scholar, but all becomes clear in the final minutes as Stuhlbarg delivers a monologue that not only lays out the film’s central thesis but reveals a dozen tiny signals in a whole new light. Brought across intact from the novel, it’s a quiet moment of exquisite parenting, a father reaching out to meet his son on the same level by sharing a part of himself, breaking down the gap between generations to offer comfort as much as wisdom.
On the page it’s powerful, but as Stuhlbarg speaks it becomes devastating, charting a path through an emotional minefield by investing each word and pause with minute consideration of its impact. The resulting monologue feels completely natural, the form rehearsed but the words as yet unformed, their effect gauged and guiding the next sentence, the narrative always in sight. In this one scene, this one speech, Stuhlbarg validates his casting and, without showboating or scene-stealing, walks off with a film already full of award-worthy work.
As an adaptation of a beloved work of LGBT literature Call Me By Your Name eschews many preconceptions of LGBT cinema by portraying the universality of first love as experienced across the whole spectrum of human sexuality. Furthermore, it advocates for a healthier masculinity open to experiences and emotions outside the narrow expectations of a reactionary society, an advocacy delivered by in a performance which, come next year’s awards season, should see Michael Stuhlbarg called up by name.