It felt strange watching a peak arthouse movie (a bildungsroman about a young musical prodigy falling for an older grad student in 1980s Italy doesn’t get much arthouse-y-er) in a multiplex theater, especially when we already have an arthouse theater down the road that’s still playing The Shape of Water, but the times they are a-changing.
My co-blogger Achariya loved it, devoured the book, and has been looking forward to it since last summer, and although she watched a screener for her most excellent preview earlier this week, we wanted to get the full theater experience.
Achariya: At the end of the movie, I looked around and spotted no fewer than three gay couples (and a few more straight couples) wiping tears from their eyes due to a certain scene. It’s nice to see this at an AMC.
Jen: I know, it was so sweet!
Call Me By Your Name, as mentioned, is a coming of age romance about Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year-old Jewish musical prodigy summering with his family in their elegant Italian villa. His family are warm, cultured, and incredibly European as they all dine alfresco all the time, read each other 14th century sonnets, and smoke like burning tobacco warehouses.
Every summer the family takes in a grad student for six weeks who helps Elio’s father, an archaeology/antiquities professor, with his notes and projects. Enter Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. Almost from the start, Elio is captivated by the tall, blond, dashing Oliver, who wears his Star of David as easily and overtly as he wears his billowing blue shirt.
I would recommend CMBYN to anyone who loves a good romance amid beautiful settings. The sex scenes are carefully blocked to avoid any full frontal, per the actors’ contracts, but there’s still lots of male nudity on screen, which you would expect in a movie where men get it on. Do not take an elderly, conservative relative to see this film unless you are really hoping to broaden their horizons or kill them with a heart attack.
For a more in-depth discussion involving spoilers, journey under the cut. We are going to demarcate my reaction to the film from our chatter by putting our discussion in italics.
Ultimately, this is a story about the fires and storms of young love.
However, in the current political and social climate of the US, the movie itself felt strangely like a throwback. The directors, writers, and production never identify the characters’ sexuality. Achariya informs me it is the same throughout the book, and there is also this about the director:
He wanted the audience to completely rely on the emotional travel of these people and feel first love. He didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters.
I get that! I have dim memories of the fires of youthful longing buried in my fossilized heart. But In a way, that refusal to acknowledge does a disservice to the film. Gay men want representation, want to be shown as more than stereotypes. Without committing to the characters being gay or at least bisexual, the movie is hinging on the old chestnut, ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’
Gay men spent centuries loving each other in the shadows, forming secret clubs and brotherhoods in order to avoid persecution and violence. The 21st century has shown some improvement, but many men still live in denial about their sexuality for fear of losing friends and family, and there are certainly places in the US that a gay couple wouldn’t be safe walking down the street. A gay couple ought to be able to go see a film on date night about gay men that actually speaks to their experience without playing at ambivalence.
Achariya: I’m going to interject and disagree that it’s necessary for Aciman to label the connection between these two men. Part of his theme was that Elio was exploring his sexuality, and the book was very much from the perspective of a young man who, in the 80s, was unable to identify or label what he felt — his exploration of Marzia and Oliver were both about figuring out where to put all his emotions, and it’s lovely to me that he does care for (and want to bonk) this man and this young woman. It would feel to me like a very 2K move to slap a specific label on Elio’s sexuality when he can’t figure it out himself, and I think Guadagnino did a great job of conveying that liminal space of exploration to the screen.
Jen: Noted. Although I perceived Elio’s experience with Marzia as him subverting his energies toward Oliver. In Elio and Oliver’s scene on the grass where Elio is all over Oliver, Oliver is definitely guiding their interaction, and then he absents himself for a few days. In the scene with Elio and Marzia, Elio seems to be guiding the action. I actually felt bad for Marzia as it seemed clear to me that she would never be the center of love for Elio that Oliver is, no matter her gender. If she were a hot young man, she would still not capture Elio’s imagination and affection the way Oliver does. I do get the appeal of ambiguity, but I guess I want the movie to be all things to all people but also still define its center.
Achariya: Another layer of background — director Luca Guadagnino is toying with the idea of filming a sequel, and (let it be noted) the central relationship he says he’ll explore is between Elio and Marzia, not Elio and Oliver. This would be a shift away from the book, but perhaps not out of line with the book’s preoccupation with intentionally blurring those definitions. But anyway, back to your lovely reaction.
Jen: Ah, I had no idea! That is fascinating!
A subtext to the story was Elio’s being the last person to realize what was going on between himself and Oliver. That subtext is explored in the setting, the beautiful house the Perlmans live in; it’s a 17th century manse, the kind of hardwood-floored house that’s all but impossible to sneak around in as every creak echoes throughout its halls. Combine that with the ever-present servants (servants! In the 20th century!) and the continual stream of visitors and you have a house that is bad for secrets.
Achariya: Here I will add a small shout-out for the beautiful production to a fellow Thai citizen, the movie’s Director of Photography, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Reading up on the film, I learned that Italy was having its rainiest summer ever — but Mukdeeprom was able to draw light from unique sources to give the impression of sun-washed landscapes and brightness and nostalgia. He was the one that made shoots like the two characters running up a misty hill toward a waterfall, or bicycling off together down a winding Italian country road, as lovely as they are. He even drew light into the house from seemingly nowhere. I found it all gloriously shot, and also thought — of course he can find light in the worst monsoon rain, he’s Thai. There’s a great interview with him about it all over here.
Of course Elio’s parents are aware of his blooming feelings toward Oliver and seem to have been even before Elio himself. A major part of young love is being unaware of others’ perceptions toward you due to the massive insecurities of youth; that is true no matter how a person identifies, and regardless of gender.
Achariya: An understated and beautiful part of the movie addresses this — the part where Elio takes Oliver to “Monet’s Berm” (the name of which had to change in the movie because of the change in location of the movie from the town of “B–” to the town of Crema). Anyway, it’s the freezing cold mountain spring and meadow where they have their first kiss. Oliver says something like, “I like how you say things. Why do you keep putting yourself down?” And Elio responds, “So that you won’t.” And in that moment, Oliver realizes that the brash young Elio, who is clearly gone for him and forthright about expressing it, is also very insecure.
I would be remiss also if I didn’t address the controversy surrounding the age difference between the 24-year-old Oliver and the 17-year-old Elio. In the book (at least the 20 pages I’ve read) Elio several times internally expresses his desire for Oliver to ‘take him’ and to ‘do what you will’ with him. This isn’t as overt in the film (at least not to me) and I sort of appreciate that.
I do remember being that young and thinking thoughts like that; it’s a dangerous age to be giving one’s self up to desire. I know I sound like an old church matron saying that, but I can’t help it; the delicate blooms of spring are easily damaged by the harsh heat of summer, and may never recover. Oliver, thankfully, is very aware of this. Although he wants Elio, he expresses several times that he is under a self-imposed restraint, and after they finally ‘do the deed’ he is hurt the morning after when Elio is distant.
Achariya: So Aciman’s book is written from the perspective of a middle-aged man looking back on what he did as a 17-year-old. It’s awash with that kind of nostalgia for first loves, and the fact that it’s about both a woman Elio’s own age and an older more experienced male lover gives it a stronger sense of credence, for me.
Achariya: I can’t speak to what “should” happen; I just know that in some lives, many different kinds of relationships happen, and these two are some of them. I had an open mind while reading this — it felt like a book in the vein of beat novels like Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, and god knows the beats were offbeat and exploratory about sexuality. I agree with you that Oliver’s restraint, and Elio’s eagerness, took any sense of exploitation out of it.
Congrats also needs to be awarded to Chalamet and Hammer’s performances in this film. To be honest, neither man does anything for me. I know Hammer has a face, but I can’t remember it – it leaves almost no impression and the most I remember of him is blue eyes and impossibly long legs with hairy knees. However his acting is amazing. In Oliver’s earlier, guarded scenes, where he is just as likely to be acerbic as encouraging, there’s a palpable sexual tension accompanying him. I was actually relieved in scenes where he wasn’t onscreen, or was far away from Elio, no doubt echoing Elio’s turmoil. After they make love, that tension is gone. Previously Oliver was shot in the distance, with almost no close-ups; afterward, he is given several in which his emotional vulnerability is on full display.
Achariya: I think in a lot of ways that this facelessness was intentional. Hammer’s character is a cipher, the object of desire — it doesn’t matter what he looks like except that his body is subject to Elio’s gaze. If Elio wants it, we’re invited to stare too. There’s a moment that seems almost exploitative, when Oliver shows off an abrasion to his hip. Elio is in sunglasses, and Oliver reveals his flesh, inviting Elio to stare at his body. We all stare along with Elio, watching Oliver run his fingers up and down the abrasion, like twice. This is the kind of objectification of body that women usually get in movies, and it’s so interesting to turn it in on toward men.
Jen: Also the shorts and general shirtlessness. Anyone who has been waiting for Armie Hammer to walk around in 80s-era shorts for two hours is in for a treat.
Achariya: But also, I found this movie hot. Hottest when two half-naked men are baring their souls to each other, because my entry point was emotion, just like Jen’s. The protagonists are just two people until they start to break down emotionally in each other’s arms, and then they become AVATARS OF LOVE or something. My brain just died.
So that was Call Me By Your Name! As mentioned, Achariya has already posted some thoughts, so if you’re thirsting for more discussion, check out her take!
Thanks for reading!
PS. Did you see CMBYN? What did you think?