Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Dir. Luca Guadagnino; Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg
[1 out of 4 stars]
Watching a movie for the first time, I often find I have a split response. When I watched La La Land (2016) in an Odeon theater in England, away from home and missing many familiar faces, I had an immediately visceral response: I was left sobbing in the theater. Yet, in the weeks after, as I thought about it more deeply, the film became flimsier and flimsier in my mind, all puff and no soul. What seemed like a heartbreaking love story in the process of watching it became more of a pastiche assembled from films like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and My Fair Lady (1964), lacking in original ideas and relying more on a beautiful landscape than on fully realized characters. They were singing and delivering lines, but on second watching, I didn’t find much of what they said to be convincing. It’s an odd thing to parse through these movies that inspire such disparate responses, but I suppose that’s why I write about them, to find the core of how the film affected me. I found myself in a similar situation after watching Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), an impeccably made film that nonetheless struck me as one I could not enjoy because of a core narrative stipulation.
Placed among the fields and rivers of Northern Italy in 1983, Call Me By Your Name tells the story of young Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), who spends his summers there with his parents. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor, and he carries out his research on Greco-Roman history not far from the family villa. Each year, to assist in this research, Mr. Perlman brings on a doctoral student, and this summer’s lucky winner is American post-grad Oliver (Armie Hammer). Mr. and Mrs. Perlman (Amira Casar) are immediately enamored with Oliver, as are Elio’s friends, who find this brash American charming and more than a little enticing. Apart from Oliver, Elio has been awkwardly testing out the romantic waters with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrell) but has no experience to speak of, and so stumbles around a little blindly, sitting on the sidelines of the town dances and backing away from her first advances. But the focus of the narrative comes to be the friendship and relationship that comes out of the initial tensions between he and Oliver. Elio is reticent at first, slapping away Oliver’s hand when he tries to give Elio a back rub at a volleyball game. Elio doesn’t have the flirtatious vocabulary to understand Oliver’s advances, needing explicit conversation later on to understand what Oliver sees as obvious. It is a slow-burn ‘romance.’ The sexual nature of their relationship led me to have a similarly visceral response to that which I had to La La Land, but in the opposite direction.
In terms of craftsmanship, Call Me By Your Name is as near an example of pristine filmmaking as I saw in 2017. Much like Alfred Hitchcock in his French Riviera-set To Catch a Thief (1955), Guadagnino lets his camera linger on the breathtaking scenery that envelops his narrative. Elio and Oliver take many a long bike ride through the countryside from the home to the city center, much like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly driving aimlessly along the roads placed just on the edge of stark cliffs. In both films, we are treated to long takes of curling roadways, and in the case of Call Me By Your Name, these are flanked by sparkling brooks and impossibly golden fields. Everything about the cinematography and composition is manicured, giving the film the feel of a Renoir painting: lush and impressionistic, looking like the Italy of the romantic past that Elio’s father studies. It has an otherworldly quality. Hovering delicately over all of this is Bach’s “Zion hört die Wächter singen,” a chorale piece which Elio often plays on the piano, and so it becomes the film’s de facto theme — a simple melody, bouncy but with an tinge of melancholy. It is an enchanting vision that Guadagnino brings to life, but the filmmaking is only half the film, and so that brings me to the central relationship.
Since it premiered at Sundance last January, Call Me By Your Name has been held up as the LGBTQ love story to end all romances. In concept, this is deeply laudable, but in practice there is one detail which made it impossible for me to celebrate the film: Elio is 17 years old and Oliver 24 when they begin their summer romance. It is not just that Elio is so young, but that the story makes it clear this is his first summer of sexual experience or exploration, and the power dynamic that would exist between a teenager still working to find himself and a college graduate with so many more years and experiences under his belt is profoundly uncomfortable. In a visual sense, this is amplified by the fact that Chalaméet is an exceptionally young looking 22 years old, compared to Hammer, who is 31 and looks markedly older, aspects that are played up through framing, makeup, and costuming throughout the movie. The result for me was that the movie played as a fetishization of youth. There is a moment when Elio and Oliver kiss, an action Oliver initiates. It is the first moment of on-screen sexuality between the two. Moments after, Oliver says that it’s fine because “they’ve done nothing to be ashamed of.” It is moment of recognition that there is something uncomfortable at play, but that impulse is never revisited. If this were in any way addressed in earnest by the narrative, it would still have struck me as a starkly troubling relationship, but I would have given credit for the narrative’s self-awareness. But this never happens. At no point during the film does Guadagnino insert a scene where the age differential is discussed more, or where someone brings it to attention. This issue is only compounded later when Elio writes a note saying he misses seeing Oliver around, and Oliver’s response is to write Elio a note telling him to meet him at midnight. It is a moment of seduction, Oliver playing on the rush Elio has felt suddenly experiencing sexuality for the first time. For me, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Oliver initiating each step of the romantic relationship. It removes Elio’s agency, and reveals an older man out of touch with the sway he holds.
Arguments in favour in the relationship have consistently touched on two points that I would like to argue against. First, Mr. Perlman’s area of study brings to mind the Greco-Roman tradition of older men idolizing and romancing younger men, and this is an explanation for Elio and Oliver’s dynamic. This may very well be the film’s thematic connection between the romance and the academic pursuit, but within the connection there is no explanation. Holding up this dynamic as a gold romantic standard is dangerous because it condones what is effectively an adult seducing a child, which brings me to a second tenant of the argument. Critics and viewers have noted the tenderness and thoughtfulness with which Oliver conducts himself around Elio, and the narrative obviously supports this reading. Elio’s parents, for one, fawn over Oliver at countless breakfasts and dinners. At the end of the film, Mr. Perlman makes a point of telling Elio how “special” what he and Oliver had was, and how “wonderful” their connection was.
I ask, however, could a truly thoughtful and respectful man of 24 in his right mind see romantically engaging with a 17 year old at such a vulnerable moment in his life as a good idea? So much formation happens in those years of adolescence leading up to your 20’s, and so it is for me not a question of whether he was 17 or 18 or even 19, but rather that a boy discovering his sexuality for the first time should have the ability to do so with people his own age with the same relative experience. At 22, I cannot imagine becoming involved with a person who is the same age as my brother, 17. So much development and maturing happens in those years that I find it truly unconscionable for a film to present a romantic narrative as revolutionary and important that so blatantly eroticizes a child. For an industry that so universally and rightfully dismisses Kevin Spacey for preying on younger men, it strikes me as rather hypocritical to so fully embrace a film that shares more than an echo of that circumstance.
While I was watching Call Me By Your Name, I was entranced with the filmmaking it put on display, and the truly first-rate performances that the whole cast turned in, and for that I wish I could celebrate it, but I will never be able to consider it as a film worthy of promoting because of the distressing dynamic at its core. It has been just under a week now since I watched the film for the first time, and I have gone to rewatch sections and scenes to see if I missed something, but there has been nothing to help me understand. Movies are meant elicit emotional responses, and I have conflicted feelings about many of my favorites movies because of the fact that they are so difficult to classify and contain. I applaud works that pose questions and characters who cannot easily be pigeon-holed as good or bad, right or wrong, moral or amoral, but in my mind, this is not that. If I was rating the filmmaking alone I would give this film four stars, but, and I hate to sound like a broken record harping on the same thing, it is worth the subtraction of three stars because of what this beauty portrays. It is an irresponsible film that romanticizes an abuse of youth, something I find extremely disappointing because it could have been so much more and could have reached its vaulted status while giving the world an LGBTQ relationship to be celebrated, but the film does not deliver.