Film Review – Call Me by Your Name
Call Me by Your Name
“Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.” The line, with all its burning honesty, comes later in the movie. It exists in a moment I won’t fully reveal, in a space where the 24 year old Oliver (Armie Hammer) and 17 year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) have had a romantic relationship and there’s an assessing of the consequences of what their love meant. It’s a beautiful moment that on several levels encompasses most of what makes Call Me by Your Name one of the year’s most exquisite and complicated films.
Love, infatuation, desire, lust, all exist on varying scales of application. Context provides for us the substance that divides and aggregates these emotions. What is love for some may be lust for others, may be a combination of all for someone else. First love, first lust is sometimes, almost always, a blurring of the two. Inexperience and ignorance blissfully lead us into these places that have no plans, or blueprints to follow.
When Oliver comes to stay with Elio’s family in Italy in the summer of 1983 as a grad student and assistant to Elio’s father, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elio is already in a transitioning state of adolescence into adulthood. He studies and plays music on the piano and spends a good deal of time in the small town they live in, hanging out with his friends. Oliver comes into the picture like the cool, smart, attractive guy he is. His affability, seduces Elio’s family as well as Elio’s friends. Over the course of several weeks Elio and Oliver slowly reveal an attraction for each other that at first is tempered by a coyness and uncertainty shrouded under the conception of a forbidden engagement.
However, this is Italy in the early 80s and not America, and if context is what helps provide definition of the spaces and roles we occupy then the air of forbidden romance eventually becomes dispelled and a relationship is allowed to begin. Like a wistful dream, director Luca Guadagnino shapes the movie around unfolding pivotal places of emotion and not necessarily over plot points. Elio and Oliver’s love, lust, infatuation is much more in a European sense, one that dates back to ancient Greece, a relationship of guidance and teaching that is as much as any hormonal and spiritual emotion that accompanies it.
Elio is mature in some ways but still impressionable in others. When Oliver and Elio first meet, Elio looks to Oliver as somewhat of a role model. When Elio and his friends watch Oliver seduce their friend Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), Elio responds by losing his virginity to his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel). But, with new experiences come new emotions, come new complications. When Elio finds himself developing a relationship with Oliver, it’s at Marzia’s expense. What feels deviant becomes expectable and in turn ripples out without the attention to consequence that maturity brings.
Deviance also plays a large part in Guadagino’s direction. Like love and lust, deviance is defined by the context of our situations. Controversial to some will be and is, the age difference. In the context of the movie, the time and place it exists in and the acceptance of the relationship by Elio’s parents places the perceived deviance in a place that is only deviant to normative views that exist outside that context. Some will be offended while others won’t. Reflectively, like art should be, this says as much about one’s self and perception as it does about the movie’s choices and approach to the subject matter.
Though, for as challenging in perception as it may become in some aspects and for a movie about a gay relationship there is more of hetero-normative perspective that keeps the gay sex hidden away while favoring the straight. It’s unfortunate and seems to work against the unpacking of deviant perceptions while still maintaining a nuanced approach to complex emotions. Elio is still coming of age in so many ways and is quickly being introduced to a new world that is both exciting and scary when confronted with the kinks and fetishes of sexual desires. In what’s surely one of the movie’s most controversial and effecting scenes, Elio is taken to a breaking point where he becomes overwhelmed by Oliver’s proclivities and retreats to a place of protection. It’s both uncomfortable and engaging. Like learning about a bigger world one maybe didn’t know exist.
Much has been said about Chalamet’s performance already and for good cause. Both secure and unsure, understated and overemotional, his ability to conform to the role comes off as natural as any seasoned actor’s would. Hammer, whose charm is disarming, gives a performance that speaks to both trepidation and indulgence that suggests maturity as much as intoxication to a new found relationship. However, it’s a conversation between Elio and his father, in the wake of his relationship to Oliver, that works to give the movie its context. Being in a place between love, lust, and what’s deemed appropriate and isn’t exists one’s weakest spots. That Elio can positively benefit from all of it speaks to an empathy a lot of movies rarely engage with.