Early to the Theater: a preview of Call Me By Your Name

I will make no bones about it: if you feel uncomfortable about bisexual male romance, and feel disturbed seeing adoration and longing played out in a messy, direct, and exploratory way, this movie is not for you. Props to director Luca Guadagnino, though, for not shying away from any part of it, not the messiness, nor the aching emotions of longing, loss, and culmination, nor the delicate difficulty of filming experience and inexperience in a way that will undoubtedly freak some people out.


In the summer of 2017, I fell in love with the Call Me By Your Name movie trailer the second I heard Sufjan Stevens’ Mystery of Love playing in the background, and heard the mysterious words “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” spoken over the strains of his guitar.

I watched the trailer three, four, five times, and then I hit Google. “Based on a book by André Aciman,” I read. “Directed by Luca Guadagnino.” At the time, I had no idea what either of these things meant, but they became woven deeply into my imagination over the  months that followed.

Last night I finally saw Guadagnino’s version of Call Me By Your Name. Seeing it in the form of a screener copy was one of those strange moments of long-held desire suddenly resolved that made me laugh a little with its sense of finality. “Oh crap, now I have to write about it,” I thought, the second I was done, and the magnitude of writing about something I knew too much about stymied me.

Where was my entry point? Was it Aciman’s book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006), which I devoured in the span of two days? Was it my increasing involvement with the community of fans that built up around the movie? Was it the actors, whose words I know so well from all their interviews that I could quote them?

Was it the author, who thought the movie’s ending was better than his own book’s? Or was it the director, who came from small-budget films, and who has moved resolutely back to small-budget films so arthouse and inaccessible that I likely won’t follow him there? (For example, Guadagnino just finished shooting a remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which is Jen’s genre but not mine so much. For more about Guadagnino himself, I recommend this Vulture article by the excellent film critic Kyle Buchanan.)

I think I need to start with the film itself, and say that yes, it properly accounted for the restless journey of a bisexual young man in the 1980s, and neatly limned both his fear and his confidence in a way that did justice to all of Aciman’s words. Every scene that I watched captured Aciman’s polyglot Italy, the beauty of it, and the resonance of its history that placed the relationship between an experienced man and an inexperienced one into that very specific historical context.

Make no bones about it, though: if you feel uncomfortable about bisexual male romance, and feel disturbed seeing adoration and longing played out in a messy, direct, and exploratory way, this movie is not for you. Props to Guadagnino for not shying away from any part of it, not the messiness, nor the aching emotions of longing, loss, and culmination, nor the delicate difficulty of filming experience and inexperience in a way that will undoubtedly freak some people out.

Was the movie good? It was meaningful and perfect and true, both to its own intentions and to Aciman’s, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to question themselves and the world and why things are the way they are.

Below this point are spoilers for Aciman’s book. So go see the movie first, or read the book, and then come back and tell me what you think.


The Book

Aciman’s novel is written from the first-person perspective of Elio. Elio is in his early middle age at the time of the reminiscence, and is telling the tale of an incredibly visceral memory of his truest, hardest, and best love, one that he had at the age of 17. The book spans the time frame of the movie and goes beyond it, fleshing out the years after the six-week affair and why Elio was never able to move past it.

The voice of Elio in the book is intense — a little obsessive, completely caught up in the idea of subsuming his identity  into his lover Oliver’s. That, to me, is the meaning of the title of the book and movie. “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” means: we have become so much in love that our identities are intertwined.

The book is not just about a physical affair, it describes the beauty of meeting a soulmate, the person that lights you up inside so utterly that you spend the rest of your life longing for that light. (Whether or not this kind of all-subsuming love works healthily in real life is a different matter.)

The book also ends with bittersweet hope. After Oliver breaks Elio’s heart at the end of the first half of the book (and the end of the movie) by telling him that he’s engaged, Aciman goes on to speak of their second meeting, when they are both much older, and Oliver has a wife and children. The book ends with the question of what Elio and Oliver do then. Do they get back together? Do they remain apart? The ending, much like life itself, remains unresolved.

Guadagnino has said that he wants to film several sequels to this film (and his actors, by all accounts, are interested in this idea too). He wants to film them years apart much like the Before Sunrise series — letting the actors age naturally and checking in with them periodically. He says that he’s even got the first sequel written, and that he wants it to expand upon the relationship between Elio and Marzia. (The book is not about a gay man, after all, but a bisexual one, and this relationship is also worth discussing.)

What the book has that the film does not is the beauty of shifting, mercurial language. There are scenes in the movie that are very well acted and carry the weight of all of Aciman’s words — 21-year-old actor Timothee Chalamet is a wonder in the role of Elio. But there are also moments in the book where Elio’s words are a turgid stew of conflicting emotion, and no actor could be the equal of conveying that kind of poetry and confusion.

Perhaps the best way to describe it is this: open up your diary at the age of 17 and see what you wrote after your crush lent you a pencil in class. If you envision ten pages of aching prose because of this pencil, that approaches the level of poetic absurdity that Aciman’s Elio feels about every little thing. Here we go, a moment where Elio waxes lyrical about Oliver, and at the same time talks about the difficult and changeable nature of love:

His face, which seemed both to endure my passion and by doing so to abet it, gave me an image of kindness and fire I had never seen and could never have imagined on anyone’s face before. This very image of him would become like a night-light in my life, keeping vigil on those days when I’d all but given up, rekindling my desire for him when I wanted it dead, stoking the embers of courage when I feared a snub might dispel every semblance of pride.

How do you act out something like that? I think it’s nigh impossible, but Chalamet does his damnedest job trying.

I have many favorite lines in the book, because Aciman’s ability to write the poetic obsession of youth is brutally honest and reveals much about human nature that we try our best to hide away under layers of calcification. The movie definitely won’t ever replace it, but it comes close.


The Actors

Is Armie Hammer good? Yes, he plays a fantastic Oliver. He carries the unenviable role of being the object of desire, the role usually reserved for the hero’s lady. Oliver is described in the book as an American “muvi star,” a man who is larger than life in intelligence and beauty.

This is what I know after reading up on Hammer for half a year: He quit high school and because of it or despite it is incredibly intelligent in a self-educated way. He has read the Aciman book and is perceptive about Oliver’s character, realizing that Oliver was deeply insecure and projecting a brusque and polished exterior, perhaps much like any bisexual man who has to deal with a larger society’s eyes on him. And Hammer dove in and did this film out of love for the director, and because the film made him feel afraid, and he wanted to challenge himself.

Is Timothee Chalamet good? He was 19 years old during the filming of this movie, and he is 21 now. It’s impossible not to see the luminous, open quality of his acting, catching so many of Aciman’s subtleties in his expression as he goes through the crazy descent into longing that Elio does.

One funny note — Chalamet plays a terrible boyfriend to Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, giving her a disappointing moment of first-time sex, and is also a terrible lover to Marzia (played by the fantastic Esther Garrell) in Call Me By Your Name, also giving her a terribly disappointing moment of first-time sex. These moments are contrasted with the drawn out and passionate lovemaking that Elio engages in with Oliver, indicating that maybe first-time sex is better when the other partner knows how to do it. Imagine that. But back to Chalamet — there’s a reason why he’s getting all kinds of international attention for this role, and it’s because he’s good.

Are the other actors good? Yes, every single one, with a special nod to Michael Stuhlbarg’s beautifully envisioned Dr. Perlman, Elio’s dad. (We just saw this fine actor in The Shape of Water, too.) His final monologue sums up the gentle power of the film, that sometimes love and pain happen whether you want them to or not, and you shouldn’t hide from feeling every stitch of it. I could quote the book here but I won’t, it’s worth listening to and reading on one’s own.

The Movie

I have run out of time to write this section, but luckily Jen and I are both seeing this together on Thursday, and our dialogue will be the second thing we post about this film. Then you’ll get to see my true delight in the way the film and book interact, especially when the two leads get naked and cry on each other.

Update: Part 2 is out!




4 thoughts on “Early to the Theater: a preview of Call Me By Your Name”

  1. This is super good stuff!!!!! Love your explanations of feelings that I couldn’t put into words before, especially about why there are so many good quotable bits in the book!!! Can’t wait for the movie part of your review to come out!!!

    1. I can’t wait to see this on a larger screen than my computer so that I can really focus on the details. It’ll also be fun for me to hear Jen’s reaction, especially because it’s such a beautiful film.

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