Cleveland, Ohio — This discourse surrounding the movie “Call Me by Your Name”, based on the novel by André Aciman, has almost always centered on its gay-ness. It is an accurate portrayal of the gay experience? Is it a triumph to have such a good and successful movie be about a gay romance? While homosexual romance is certainly more than a minor theme in this film, the romantic dynamic between Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is less about homosexuality as such but more of a means to explore different themes and ideas, such as identity formation and how to negotiate one’s carefully crafted sense of self with the dual-subjectivity of an intense relationship, which almost always shatters the previous, statue like version of oneself in favor of a version of that self that isn’t guaranteed to be better or stronger. That’s the terror of relationships.
The year is 1983. Elio’s father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), plays an affable archaeologist. Each summer, Perlman and his family, including 17 year-old Elio and his beautiful wife Annella (Amira Casar), go to their beautiful vacation home in Northern Italy. Perlman, while there, also undergoes with his research.
Accompanying the family each summer is a different graduate student, who assists Perlman with research. This summer, Oliver is the research student. He stays with the family in their home. He is in incredible shape, extremely handsome and is almost perfect, excluding his sleeping in and missing dinner after his long flight upon arrival at the estate. Oliver’s beauty rivals the beauty of the statues Perlman uncovers from archaeological digs. In a slide show presentation of various ancient statues in the Grecian style, Perlman notes that the bodies of the sculptures are impossibly curved, “almost daring you to desire them.” Desire in this movie is never messy: it’s always extremely clean, and its object is always impeccable. It’s typically the beautiful or the Good itself, as described by Plato.
Oliver is the Good. Not only is he a brilliant scholar who shines more brightly than Elio, he fits right into the community, successfully having a relationship with the most attractive girl in the extended friend group of young people living in town, becoming friends with a group of old men who drink, smoke cigarettes and gambles in a local bar. He speaks Italian just well enough to not stick out like a sore thumb. He’s charming. He is easy to envy, resent and hate. There is a bit of a brotherly rivalry that develops between Elio and Oliver, but a rivalry that starts with a distrustful distance to one of mutual intrigue.
Neither of them are entirely straight, nor entirely gay. They have relationships with both sexes. But over the course of the movie, Elio and Oliver become closer and closer. It starts with a friendly back massage at the beginning of the movie, and eventually we get to a point where a line is clearly crossed. Oliver’s pristine facade is taken down and he reveals himself: he is still playful, but he is much more vulnerable and emotional than his air of perfection indicates. On the flip side, Elio receiving Oliver’s recognition brings him out of his shell and he becomes utterly infatuated. Elio is normally a sad boy, reading and transcribing music, all while feeling sorry for himself. They mutually bring themselves outside of each other, which is the basis for something like magic to occur in a relationship, and magic is certainly what these two have.
In terms of performances, across the board they are solid. Hammer could very well win an award for his performance. Chalamet is basically a more likable, more emotional version of the character he played in “Lady Bird.” He doesn’t have ton of range, and he can only do variations of one character at this point in his career, but he plays that character type well. Stuhlbarg and Casar are masterful as the rocks of the movie, always there in the background to maintain order so the kids can play. Finally, Esther Garrel, who plays Elio’s interest Marzia, is stellar. She portrays a wide emotional range, from being guarded to being utterly devastated, due to Elio being extremely selfish.
But in the end, it’s all about the dynamic between Oliver and Elio. “Call Me by Your Name” is an account of a special type of relationship that is rare, which gives people in the relationship an astonishing amount of joy, whilst also leading to immense intellectual and personal growth. Everything is changing and it’s all for the better. At one point during the movie, Elio’s dad reveals that he never had anything as special as what Oliver and Elio have.
But what does a relationship like that do to the individuals once the dust has settled? Whether or not a relationship like that lasts forever, the magic comes and goes, and the experiences that occur during those periods are extremely formative, affecting the individuals after they occur just as much as during them. How does someone cope with his or her absence? How do self-serious people cope with balancing potentially destructive emotional vulnerability and the joys of duality? These sorts of questions, concerning desire, a fuller version intellect tied to emotional intelligence, and romance, are the major themes of the film. It’s not a statement or elucidation of some idealization of homosexual romance. It’s simply a really good movie that has a form of homosexuality in it. We should judge it on its own terms, rather than viewing it as ‘the gay movie’ and specifically watching it through that lens. When we watch in this way, not having expectations, you’ll probably be awed by the beauty and story of the film, regardless of how detached from reality it is. Just turn off the critical part of your brain, watch it, and maybe shed a couple of tears. This is a good one. Watch it while it’s still in theaters.
Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom / Sony Pictures Classics