Stereotyped as subjects forever on the prowl, gay men are often objects, inanimate objects, especially when young. Moving through spaces where their desires remain unacknowledged and hence ungratified, they develop their powers of observation. They fetishize clothing. They use wit, a powerful weapon with an equally powerful kick, for the wit isolates them too, exposes the differences between them and the straight world. Among the many things that Call Me By Your Name gets right is depicting how an intelligent and casually erudite young man learns to close the distances between himself and the straight world; he folds his erudition into the rest of his self, making it an extension of his compassion and curiosity, the latter the prime virtue, for without curiosity no compassion is possible.
What did Luca Guadagnino and his casting director see in Timothée Chalamet? This twenty-one-year-old actor has a gorgeous full head of dark hair, the waist of an adolescent ballerina, and a pert mouth. Yet there’s nothing recessive about him; by mysterious suasion he forces the camera to accept the strangeness of him. Without Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name is unthinkable.
But Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel is a piece for two soloists who eventually harmonize with exquisite grace. When I saw the eagerness with which Armie Hammer accepts his destiny and dances as badly as any white man – to Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” no less! – I relaxed. Call Me By Your Name shows characters who, to quote sage George Clinton, dance out of their constrictions. As crucial is the way it traces how a young intellectual of French, Italian, American, and crucially, Jewish origin, accepts desire as an essential component of happiness.
But what might make Call Me By Your Name the first wide release film about two gay men fondling each other to make a small profit since 2005 is that it presents itself as an idyll. For its first hour, the movie flirts with opulence porn, a Merchant Ivory production from the old days for all intents and purposes, albeit one comfortable with human movement and camera work. Hammer is Oliver, a graduate student spending the summer of 1983 at an Italian villa owned by the Perlmans (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) while helping Mr. Perlman, a professor of archeology, with translations and paperwork. The real labor is drinking, canoodling with local girls, and swimming in the rivers. Seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Chalamet) falls in love with Oliver without embarrassment and shame – at first. This is refreshing. As he demonstrated in A Bigger Splash and I Am Love, Guadagnino loves filming the activities of gods condemned to interact in their spectacular human forms with stunned mortals. A shirtless Oliver playing volleyball, stopping to massage Elio’s shoulder muscle, bikes to town for cigarettes and to deliver pages to the printer. Allusions to seventeenth century French poetry, and, foreshadowing an infamous scene familiar to fans of the novel, peach trees. The bounties of the leisure class, in other words.
“I’m gonna talk in etymologies,” Oliver cracks to the Perlmans during one of their first conversations. Shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom with an awareness of the play of August sunlight on male skin and the texture of thick flybuzzed air as fine as Nester Almendros’ early seventies work for Eric Rohmer, Call Me By Your Name studies the etymology of adolescent male desire, the way that submission can be as satisfying as release if it’s all that’s available. Unlike his lugubrious counterpart in Aciman’s novel, Chalamet’s Elio is a conniving, shrewd horndog, bisexual when necessary, able to mimic Busoni playing Liszt playing Bach on the piano; he’s just on the less annoying side of precocious (“Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver wonders, himself annoyed). But the resourceful Chalamet, best known for Interstellar and an excellent bit in Lady Bird, is a pleasure to watch; it’s his movie. Elio wants Oliver, period, and Chalamet’s beautifully physical performance – legs tossed over chairs, bare toes curled on stones, his eyes watching his parents’ boredom with the chicanery of Italian politics in the eighties – makes this clear. The actor’s intelligence shines in the revelation scene, well-staged by Guadagnino. The pair, flanking a Great War memorial in the village, draw close as the confessions spill from Elio. Using distance during a moment of crisis feels true.
Guadagnino has gotten criticism, including from James Ivory, about the lack of sex — an absurdity given how readily his actors yield to each other once they’ve decided to act on their impulses (and an absurdity coming from the likes of Ivory, whose films treat chastity like a statue in the park). Elio grabs Oliver by the balls, licks Oliver’s lips, gnaws at one of those perfect shoulders, and has a cute way of nuzzling Oliver headfirst like a puppy pressing into a leg — all this before That Peach Scene. And in context the film’s queerest scene would be the straightest in another film: Elio in his parents’ cathedral-sized living room lazing across the laps of two of his girlfriends, one of whom his acknowledged lover, smoking languidly.
“Queer” because Call Me By Your Name never says the words “gay” or “homosexual.” Whether Oliver has been with guys goes unmentioned too, although he demonstrates respectable skill at an essential oral practice. But in the summer of 1983, living in this house where the talk is of Molière and Praxiteles and the wine flows, anything is possible. To be queer is to allow for possibilities. When late in the picture, after Oliver’s departure, Elio’s father delivers a compassionate monologue more or less from the novel to his shattered son, the moment strikes me as too perfect, a parody of liberal parenting despite Stuhlbarg’s expertly weighed delivery. To be queer is to live in shadow; suspicion is as natural as hunger. An otherwise perceptive Glenn Kenny review makes a serious mistake when he judges the approach to Call Me By Your Name as a project meant to “de-queer Elio’s mode of being.” Kenny:
That’s the point of the film’s final shot. Yes, he’s heartbroken and crying, but there’s “beautiful” music, he’s literally crouching in front of a fireplace (the hearth!), and behind him his family, while giving him his space, is preparing a sumptuous holiday meal.
This is absurd. I’m never queerer than when my parents give me my space while preparing a sumptuous holiday meal. To be queer — to be gay — is to feel a secret separation (it’s worth nothing too that Elio’s parents are, according to a friend, even queerer than Elio).
“An eternity seemed to pass between my reluctance to make up my mind and his instinct to make it up for me,” the novel’s Elio observes during one of his and Oliver’s lovemaking scenes. Guadagnino and Ivory’s adaptation go one better than Aciman’s book: by the time Call Me By Your Name ends, with Chalamet caught in a heartbreaking closeup for minutes, we sense that it’s Elio who’s made up his mind about himself and Oliver the confused old thing requiring direction. That this fact brings no one any consolation is the essence of maturity.