One Summer Dream
Movie Review: Call Me by Your Name
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Ester Garrel
I was reluctant to see Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name when I first saw its trailer in early January. As a queer man, I’ve found the portrayal of gay men on film and television to be generally false. I was a teenager when I saw my first gay movie. That was William Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation of the landmark Broadway play, The Boys in the Band, about a gay birthday party. That film both fascinated and terrified my teenage self. Those guys were bitchy, cynical queens living in New York. They had nothing to do with me or my life. In the years since, I’ve seen countless movies and TV shows with gay characters, but the stereotypes prevail, especially on television.
Movies have done considerably better at depicting gay men over the years, from Craig Lucas’ AIDS drama, Longtime Companion to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, as well as a whole new genre of small independent films made specifically for the gay community. 2017 has been somewhat of a watershed year with a Best Picture Oscar win for Moonlight and a number of acclaimed gay films like Beach Rats and God’s Own country. But even now, too many films about gay people are pretentiously self-aware of their imagined social importance. They inevitably collapse into sententious melodrama, championing the cause without ever creating any real human drama. And when gay films attempt romance, they usually fall into the same maudlin traps as heterosexual romances. The bottom line is that most of these characters, like those in The Boys in the Band, do not ring true to my experiences.
The preview for Guadagnino’s romantic drama struck me as particularly corny, especially the idea of calling your lover by your own name. I was encouraged, however, when I learned the Guadagnino’s film was adapted from the acclaimed novel by André Aciman, by the great James Ivory, the 90-year-old writer/director whose collaborations with Ishmael Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala produced some of the finest literature-based films of the past 40 years. Ivory directed 1987’s Maurice, a first-rate adaptation of E. M. Forster’s posthumously published 1971 novel of forbidden gay romance set in early 20th century England. Ivory’s restraint and impeccable good taste permeate every second of the deeply moving Call Me by Your Name, a coming-of-age romantic drama that rivals the screen’s very best, gay or otherwise.
Set in 1983, Call Me by Your Name tells of Elio (Timothée Chalomet), a Jewish American 17-year-old of considerable talent and intellect, who lives with his French and Italian parents in a rustic old villa in an unnamed village in Northern Italy. Elio is a precocious and sophisticated intellect. But emotionally he’s inexperienced and surprisingly lacking in self-esteem. One summer, Elio’s father, an archeology professor, invites a brash young American intern, Oliver (Armie Hammer) to live with the family and help him with his work. Elio finds Oliver arrogant and the two bristle in a sort of genial combat of attitude. But as they spend more time together, Elio’s attraction to the older, more experienced, Oliver becomes more obvious. In a brilliantly staged scene around a large fountain that visually emphasizes their inability to communicate directly, Elio confesses his feelings through a round-about conversation in which things are implied but never stated. When the mutually attracted, but paranoid, Oliver rejects him, the two play games of manipulation with each other before finally consummating their relationship.
The openly gay Guadagnino has stated that he approached the film as a fantasy from his adolescence. (And what gay teen wouldn’t fantasize about spending a summer frolicking with Armie Hammer?) But while the fantasy element is certainly there, what struck me most about the film was the veracity and frankness with which it depicts Elio’s confusion over his blossoming attractions and the awkwardness and uncertainty of being a gay or bisexual teenager. Elio’s passion is unfettered by the guarded cynicism of adulthood. His love scenes with Oliver have a naked lack of self-awareness that’s almost difficult to watch. When the two kiss, he throws his face, mouth wide open, over Oliver’s with shame-free abandon. In an earlier scene, Elio lies on Oliver’s bed with the intern’s swimming trunks over his head, arching his back as if in the throes of gay sex, a candid detail I found refreshingly honest. Elio can’t disguise his hunger to be with Oliver, but he’s painfully unsure of himself. When Oliver gently and seductively taunts him for masturbating into a hollowed-out peach, putting it to his mouth for a taste, the humiliated Elio begs him to stop.
Much of the film’s power lies in its low-key approach. Guadagnino sets a slow pace, his camera often lingering on shots of the two friends riding their bikes down long country roads and through the streets of the gorgeous Italian village. And there are numerous shots of nature and the breathtaking Italian countryside. These dreamy pastoral images provide a sensuous backdrop to Elio’s story, as we see the world through his love-struck eyes. The world is indeed beautiful through the eyes of one in love.
Guadagnino’s deliberate approach creates incredible tension as the two slowly acknowledge their mutual attraction, and it steers the resolution of that tension away from the mawkish and insincere. Sometimes things are so low-key it can be hard to read the characters. But this too is effective in that Oliver and Elio are constantly sending mixed signals and misreading one another. When they finally connect in a series of seriously sexy scenes, the release is rapturous for both characters and audience.
I’m not normally one to cry at movies. Yes, the ingenious Citizen-Kane-inspired sequence that opened Pixar’s Up gave rise to a lump or two in my throat, as it did with many men I know, including some very butch construction workers. My past experiences with depression caused me to flat out sob during Joy’s moment of despair in that studio’s greatest film, Inside Out. And if I ever feel the need for a good movie cry, all I need to do is drink a glass of red wine and pop a copy of Fellini’s La Strada in the DVD player and I’m good to go. But very few movies have that effect on me. While I appreciate sentiment, I despise the overwrought sentimentality that ruins so many clumsy tearjerkers. It’s dishonest and ineffective. But after watching Call Me by Your Name, I sat in my car, around the corner from the theater, and cried for five minutes. I was so profoundly touched by it.
No doubt this is in part a personal reaction from finally seeing, at the age of 56, a film that accurately echoes my own feelings and experiences as a gay teen, a straight person’s privilege that gay people have only recently begun to enjoy. It’s also due to Ivory’s exquisite script and Guadagnino’s mature restraint and rapturous tone. And I can’t deny the impact of Hammer’s understated and beautifully thought out performance. But mostly my reaction was due to Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet’s goofy man-boy mannerisms and bright-eyed adoration for Hammer’s Oliver, bring authenticity and truth to one of the year’s most fully written characters. When the inevitable heartbreak comes, he’s quietly devastating. It’s an astonishing, richly nuanced performance, one of the year’s very best, and the heart and soul of a superb film.