Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino (director), Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (cinematographer), Walter Fasano (editor), James Ivory (writer)
Adapted from Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois (cast)
Released January 22, 2017 (Sundance), November 24, 2017 (USA)
Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully crafted film about a sweet summer romance between an adult and a teen. That fact colours everything else about the film: its gorgeous cinematography; how much character work the costuming does; a soundtrack that is as powerful in its moments of silence as it is in its most joyfully loud ones; and several subtle, complicated performances.
The romantic coming-of-age drama is set in an aging villa just outside a sleepy Italian town, in 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is sullenly anticipating another humdrum summer with other wealthy European families when American grad student Oliver (an extremely thirty-year-old Armie Hammer) arrives to assist Elio’s father, work on his book, and generally disrupt the established dynamics of the family’s summers. Oliver’s Americanness sets him apart. He’s casual and brash, absolutely enormous in comparison to every other performer in the film, and summer blonde–a perfect stereotype of sun-kissed Californian.
Elio and Oliver are immediately fascinated by each other, sneaking looks, leaning into each other’s orbit, but also reticent. Oliver, as a closeted queer man of twenty-four, knows that he needs to keep his sexuality quiet and his interest in Elio even more so. Elio, as a confused teen, doesn’t quite know what he’s feeling or experiencing: it takes him time to come to terms with the nature of his attraction to Oliver; it takes him even more time to understand the nuances of their relationship, or really, any of his relationships. But eventually their relationship grows, moving from tentative friendship, to electric flirting, to grand summer romance. In the film’s third act they even go away for a holiday within a holiday, a last romantic weekend together before Oliver is due in Rome for more work, and then home to America. It is, in every way, an entirely typical summer teen romance, albeit prettier than most, and expertly shot–except for the too wide gap in age that is never satisfyingly addressed by film.
Hammer’s Oliver seems conscious of the wide gap in their experiences. He is fascinated by Elio’s breadth of knowledge on music and history, his quick turns of phrase, and his confidence–but it’s the contrast with Elio’s innocence and inexperience, his lapses into uncertainty and childishness that make his precocity (as so many reviewers have put it) compelling. To Oliver, Elio is coltish boy-nymph who is–you know this one–so mature for his age. He repeatedly compliments Elio’s intelligence but never says a thing about his looks; Hammer injects a desperate ferocity into their sex scenes that speaks to the depth of Oliver’s physical interest, though. When on their holiday within a holiday they cuddle closely and do a relationship debrief–how they got there, what they really, truly feel, and all the usual breathing-the-same-air declarations–and Elio mourns that he didn’t notice Oliver’s attraction sooner. Oliver laughs, shocked, and reminds Elio that when they first met, he couldn’t keep his hands off him: brushing against him, sitting too close, offering unwanted massages. Oliver has always been as open about his interest as he could be, given the circumstances, but Elio lacked the experience to pick up on these signals. Consequently, Oliver says, “you made me feel like I was molesting you.”
It’s supposed to be funny. But Oliver is taking advantage of Elio and their relationship cannot end happily. It’s been a strange experience to read reviews of Call Me By Your Name that laud it for being pure or happy. It is a film in which one partner is seeking a last frothy jaunt before marrying a woman he doesn’t love and staying miserably closeted forever after. In which another character, Elio’s father, reveals he has spent his whole life closeted and lonely, and was happy to send his teenage son off on a trip with an adult man because he never got the chance. In which the second romantic partner is a rather confused teen who variously fucks a female friend who he immediately dumps, an adult he seeks approval from, and a peach. And finally, a film in which the adult women are nurturing figures of no real substance, appearing and disappearing to provide meals, do laundry, and offer comfort. It’s the stuff of American Pie played extremely seriously: a father proud of his son’s sexual exploits; starter girlfriends; trauma as a means to maturity; and of course, the one who got away.
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer deliver nuanced performances, both doing their best work yet. There is a charm to both characters and to the early stages of their relationship, before it turns sexual and, quite frankly, fraught with emotional wreckage in the making. But instead of leaning into this, the film chooses to elide Oliver’s worst qualities in favour of his emotional vulnerability, saving important context for a last minute revelation in the film’s final scenes. There are times in Call Me By Your Name where Hammer seems to want to inject uncertainty and self-disgust into his performance of Oliver, slight hesitations in glances and line delivery, posture suddenly awkward. But the tragedy that this film is interested in is chiefly that of first love lost, not that of Oliver choosing to pursue a sexual relationship with teenage Elio, or even the shame and torment that push Oliver and Elio’s father to stay in the closet. When I reviewed God’s Own Country I said that I didn’t know how badly I’d needed a story about working class queer men that ended happily. Watching Call Me By Your Name, I realized how badly I need a sweet summer queer romance that doesn’t by design undercut itself, that is instead a romance of equals.
Does Call Me By Your Name know that Elio and Oliver’s relationship was not ok? That adults who have sex with teens are more often than not attracted to the inexperience which makes them easier to manipulate, and yes, harm? I don’t think it does. Where the novel of the same name was highly interior, purely focused on Elio’s particular experience to the point where readers can be certain that he is fine at the romance’s conclusion, the film pulls the camera back from Elio to gaze adoringly at all that lush Italian scenery and Elio’s lush youth. The camera lingers on contrasts: the aging villa and the perpetually renewed countryside; Elio’s soft features and awkward body language and Oliver’s grown-into confidence. The consequence of distancing us from Elio’s psyche, of laying all the weight of Elio’s journey on Chalamet’s ability to convey complex emotion through micro expressions is uncertainty: we don’t know if Elio will be ok, and Guadagnino’s decision to end the film with Chalamet prettily crying over the credits for a two-plus minutes doesn’t give us confidence he will be. What we can guess of Elio and Oliver’s futures is solely what we can extrapolate from other summer romances–Elio is still too young for us to guess at who he’ll be once he’s tempered by experience; Oliver remains, as in the book, largely opaque to us.
The film’s most praised monologue dwells on how beautiful their love is; how important an experience it was. This notion, the necessity of first love and heartbreak–in this case of being burned by an adult’s fetishistic interest in one’s youth–becomes revolting to me in the context of this romance, and how Guadagnino has chosen to frame it. After Oliver has gone on his way, Elio’s father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, tells him the sort of thing that all enlightened adults do in teen movies: that first love and first heartbreak are important; that Elio should try to hang on to some of his youthful passion and not be whittled down through the years to fit into a box of adult appropriateness. He mourns that he has never lived his life fully–or had a chance with a hunk like Oliver–and advises Elio to embrace and learn from the experience. Stuhlbarg’s delivery is more elegant than this conventional advice deserves, giving it outsized weight and significance–so much so that it made me wish for the alternate universe film in which he frees himself after a summer fling of his own.
You might be protesting at this point, that, Megan, seventeen and an extremely thirty-looking twenty-four isn’t so big a gap. What about this or that famous romance where an adult and a teen found true love? But seventeen is very different from twenty-four or thirty-four. Seventeen is not yet grown in body, mind, or experience. Seventeen is young enough that reviewers have needed to call Elio “precocious” and “mature,” or dodge the matter entirely. These protestations are farcial when you consider the whole of Elio’s actions in this film. It’s often the little things that got me: refusing to wear a shirt that his mother’s friends gifted to him; making inappropriate sexual comments in front of his father, in an effort to seem more mature; carelessly pushing at the emotional boundaries of people around him. He’s, well, a foolish kid. Young. Chalamet’s seventeen-year-old Elio is young enough that we adults should know better than to even cast our eyes his way. Prone to petulant “mo-OMMMM”ing, Elio is not a character I came to care for, but by dint of his youth and situation, I still wanted only to protect him. Protecting our boys so that they may grow into good men is not something we do nearly enough.
Call Me By Your Name is one of the most beautiful films I saw in 2017, but ultimately it left me unsettled.