The seductive distortions of Call Me By Your Name (2017)

SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

If you didn’t know that the Best Picture–nominated Call Me By Your Name is an uncritically rapturous celebration of a same-sex relationship between an inexperienced youth played by Timothée Chalamet and an experienced man played by Armie Hammer, you might almost guess it from the opening titles, an arty overture for the film that follows.

The music, a lilting piece for two pianos, promises a joyous, ecstatic experience — but if, like Chalamet’s character Elio, you had a sufficient musical education, you might pick up more from the selection than that.

The piece, from the first movement of the composer John Adams’ 1996 Hallelujah Junction, is written in what Adams calls “the interlocking style of two-piano writing” (the “junction” of the title), the pianists trading off similar but non-aligned rhythms in a tightly choreographed musical duel, effortlessly weaving in and out from one another.

You would certainly notice that the screen is filled with closeups of photographs of classical statuary: mostly male nudes. The photographs, artfully strewn as if waiting to be scrapbooked, promise nostalgic reverie; the muscular torsos suggest a tasteful celebration of male beauty, though female beauty is not excluded.

The sculptures’ provenance establishes a sunny Mediterranean milieu as well as evoking a world of pre-Christian sexual mores, one often cited for its relatively permissive attitudes toward pederasty. It might be pointed out in reply that it was also a great civilization noted for succumbing to decadence and indulgence before exhausting itself and collapsing (and while the popular idea here is partly a cartoon, so are the popular ideas about classical sexuality).

You might not be surprised, then, to emerge from the credits and find yourself in a bucolic northern Italian countryside, with slender Elio looking down from the second-story window of a splendidly dilapidated 17th-century villa at the arrival of an Adonis-like figure he will come to know as Oliver, played by Hammer.

The spirit of self-indulgence and wish fulfillment in these speeches extends in some measure to the film as a whole; Call Me depicts the world, not as it is, but as its makers and intended audience on some level wish it were.

Directed by Luca Gudadagnino from James Ivory’s screenplay of the novel by André Aciman, Call Me By Your Name doesn’t want to be, like Brokeback Mountain, a complicated drama about troubled characters struggling with guilt and social disapproval. Such difficult themes aren’t absent, but they’re largely backgrounded — more abstract ideas than anything we see onscreen. The foregrounded conflict is largely within Elio, from whose point of view the story is told.

Call Me By Your Name is both about seduction and a sensuous film that wants to seduce the willing viewer. From the lush Lombardy landscape and the leisurely al fresco meals to the ethereal Sufjan Stevens soundtrack, everything is pitched to make it easy — too easy — for the viewer to surrender. (Notably, the sexual encounters between the male leads are more implicitly and discreetly depicted than the heterosexual ones, minimizing discomfort to heterosexual viewers; even the famous/infamous peach scene is crucially tamed down from the novel. The year, 1988 in the novel, has been pushed back five years to 1983, eliding the specter of AIDS.)

Cultures of Life and Death

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Last week controversy erupted over my “Reel Faith” video review of the Best Picture–nominated movie Call Me By Your Name, a gay-themed coming-of-age drama about a same-sex relationship between characters played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.