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. 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.)
Elio’s parents — his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish American archaeology professor, his mother (Amira Casar) an Italian homemaker and translator — are sexually permissive liberals who offer their son nothing but genial encouragement and acceptance. Even Marzia (Esther Garrel), a local girl who begins a sexual relationship with Elio with trepidation, expressing her worry that he will hurt her — which he does — ultimately offers him understanding forgiveness. (This absolution is not in the book, I’m told. The film’s treatment of its female characters is one of its less rapturous qualities.) In the end comes an emotional monologue to Elio from his father, summing up the tolerant, seize-the-moment milieu in such an on-the-nose way that a gay critic for The Daily Beast admits that it plays as “wish-fulfillment for many gay people.”
The closing monologue is not the father’s only on-the-nose speech. The implications of the classical statuary in the opening credits are later too explicitly unpacked by Elio’s father, who rhapsodizes about the firm muscles and curved, nonchalant stances of the statues he studies, “as if they’re daring you to desire them.” Call Me is not propaganda, but it’s never closer to being so than in these speeches from the father. 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. A cinephile friend characterized the film to me (disparagingly) as a romance novel or, more precisely, a “Harlequin Romance bodice-ripper” (though of course no bodices are worn by either of the characters in the central relationship).
As in many romance novels, the central relationship, viewed in real-world terms, is shallower and more troubling than the story appears to realize, or than many of the movie’s fans would care to acknowledge. The two main actors are attractive and charismatic, and it’s easy to like their characters even though they both do unlikable things. Oliver, a brash, breezy Jewish American graduate student spending the summer with Elio’s family, indifferently ignores most of Elio’s awkward attempts to get his attention. (Their shared Jewish heritage has metaphorical resonances the film doesn’t seem interested in exploring.) Eventually Oliver grants Elio a kiss, but almost seems to be humoring him. His words and actions suggest that he feels going further would be wrong — possibly because of the gap between them in age and experience. Yet Oliver has already made his own overtures toward Elio, among other things briefly massaging Elio’s shoulder in a way that Oliver later acknowledges was meant to express his attraction. Whether this is an expression of inner struggle, a moment of weakness he later regrets, a reflection of a pattern of hot-and-cold behavior, or what, Oliver encourages and seeks out the response from Elio that he later rebuffs, until he doesn’t.
Depending on one’s perspective and interpretation of Oliver’s rather enigmatic demeanor, this might be deemed flirting, conflicted behavior or predatory grooming. On paper, Elio is 17 and Oliver 24, though Hammer looks his three decades, making the difference greater onscreen. (Chalamet is 21, but so pencil-slight that he easily passes for 17.) More important than the years, though, is the difference in life experience. Elio is of the legal age of consent, but he’s also a minor. These are mutable social conventions; what is not is that Oliver is worldly-wise and exudes self-confidence, overawing Elio, a teenaged music nerd who can barely make a pass at a girl, let alone a man. Whatever else their relationship may be, it is not remotely a relationship of equals. Unequal relationships have perhaps been more the rule than the exception historically, and certainly there have been plenty of movies about older men and younger women. Yet over time this motif has at least come under scrutiny and become controversial particularly in feminist circles, rightly so — and that’s before factoring in the particulars of this relationship: an inexperienced youth sexually initiated in a short-term relationship with an experienced adult. Is this kind of age-discrepant relationship seen differently in relation to gay men than in other contexts? If so, why?
Perhaps Elio’s father would profess to see no difference. If instead of Marzia Elio had first become entangled with an experienced 24-year-old Italian woman, I suspect he would have received the same cheerful encouragement at home. After Oliver leaves, the moral is summed up by Elio’s father in that celebrated final monologue. “You had a beautiful friendship — maybe more than a friendship — and I envy you,” he says after acknowledging “barriers” in his own life which prevented him from experiencing anything like that. He goes on:
In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it … We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste! Forgive me if I have spoken out of turn. I will have been a terrible father if, one day, you’d want to speak to me and felt the door was shut, or not sufficiently open.
It’s not hard to see why this speech is so powerful to many who have had more difficult family discussions — and, indeed, the paternal love and emotional openness of this monologue is moving. Here, above all, is the film’s expression of the world as the filmmakers believe it ought to be. The monologue proposes a vision of life involving a series or chain of relationships, each of which wounds us when it ends, yet, if we can embrace the pain, adds to us. Oliver has hurt Elio, but he has also given him something precious — something enviable. The preciousness of that gift, and the pain of loss, is powerfully communicated in the film’s final shot, a sustained closeup of Elio’s face registering complex, shifting emotions as the end credits roll — the most subtle and effective acting in the film.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong, in a sense, with Elio’s father’s monologue, even insofar as it applies to his son’s relationship with Oliver — except insofar as that relationship involved sexual acts. Powerful friendships and precious personal bonds can lead to pain when we lose the person we care about, and burying such pain isn’t the way to deal with it. But friendships, however intense, are one thing; the complete communication of the self and knowledge of the other through sexual union is something else.
The Catholic Church teaches that this self-gift is tragically disfigured if it is anything less than a total gift embracing the whole of life, excluding all others, within the complementary union of marriage. “Call me by your name,” Oliver says to Elio, “and I’ll call you by mine.” Oliver wants to be united with “Oliver,” Elio with “Elio.” From a Catholic perspective — but also in the best philosophical and literary traditions of the classical world — human sexuality is ordered toward union with the other: sexual union with the sexually other. The goods of both friendship and eros present in same-sex relationships are stunted and distorted by sexual acts where no true union of two in one flesh is possible. Elio’s father’s speech (which, again, speaks for the filmmakers and the film, making it impossible to ignore) expresses a far more indiscriminate, open-ended perspective, one that does incalculable harm to human persons and to society.
Some individuals, men and women, with defining youthful experiences not unlike Elio’s carry the pain of abuse all their lives. Others regard their experiences with poignant nostalgia, even in cases where they were clearly victims. Just because someone may not feel like a victim doesn’t mean they haven’t been harmed or abused, and embracing pain doesn’t always make it an enriching experience.
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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.