“Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.”
It really is the perfect eponymous quote for a film about narcissism and projected self-obsession. Suggested by Oliver to his younger male lover, it reads from his mouth as a yearning for lost youth. Yes, this film is beautifully shot, and yes, the stylisation is exquisite; but this love story is far from pure.
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017), based on the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, is both coming-of-age story and romantic drama. 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls for 24-year-old graduate-student assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is staying at his family’s house over the summer to help out Elio’s father. Immediately, a romance between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old seems like it could be problematic ー especially considering that it’s described by many to be one of the corner-stones of modern queer cinematic representation. And it is in some ways. But I’ll get into that later…
Biggest Gay Mood: fucking a peach (no, a literal peach) and then crying about it
Aesthetics and Stylisation
Even if the characters literally just said nothing and there was no plot whatsoever, Call Me By Your Name would still be worth watching. Set in Northern Italy during the summer of 1983, the stylisation is pure idealised romanticism, and it truly is breath-taking to look at. The whole time. Elio’s parent’s summer house is just on the right side of grotesquely large and fancy. As the main setting for the action, the fruit trees, pools and verandas of the expansive garden are only the start of the gorgeous cinematography. Near-constant sun enhances both natural and man-made landscapes with a warm and luxurious colour palette: we visit a river, a creek, and a grassy meadow; we see a house with a cheery old woman outside peeling fruit; entering a spacious plaza, we pass by antique buildings whose stones hold a dusty pink hue.
This is to say nothing of the subtly fabulous 80s aesthetic. The 80s fashions, particularly in group scenes, only serve to enhance its bold and bright visual identity. Featuring some killer 80s European pop, the soundtrack is exquisite, and very artfully placed. For example, the music in one love-making scene between Elio and Marcia, his almost-girlfriend, is played through a radio; 80s synths sound tinny and artificial, and we wonder if Elio enthusiasm is equally so. Conversely, the music leading up to Elio and Oliver’s sex scene is soft but full-bodied, being non-diegetic (that is, outside the action of the film and not perceived by the characters.)
The film’s aesthetic identity pulls from much further back than the 1980s. The opening sequence introduces us to Greco-Roman statues which come up again through Elio’s father’s work ー the very work for which Oliver has been brought to help out. Indeed, the two of them accompany Elio’s father to an excavation site, and the three of them witness statue remains being pulled up out of the water. Yes, this adds to a romantic aesthetic, but it also serves to conjure up other ideas: of the visual sexualisation of the male form; of history, and of time stretching forward indefinitely; and, importantly and controversially, of relationships between older and younger men.
To read an academic analysis of the older-younger dynamic in Call Me By Your Name, I would recommend Emily Rutherford’s piece for EIDOLON: ‘Dare to Speak Its Name: Pederasty in the Classical Tropes of Call Me by Your Name.’
In an era before computers, even Elio’s summertime activities ー reading, transcribing and playing music ー hearken back to a now romanticised period. Call Me By Your Name exists within a contained world that is just out of reach of attainability.
And the film’s sense of luxury is only added to by its pacing. Many short scenes, in which not much happens, are spliced together to create the illusion of tempo; yet, in reality, the plot progresses very slowly. Reflecting the teenage feeling of summertime, lingering shots combined with this shuttered editing style make the film seem like it could be endless; it seems to last forever, but days themselves move fast. As with Elio and Oliver’s relationship, by the time it’s ending, you always wish the summer were longer.
Through His Eyes
If you’ve seen Call Me By Your Name, you won’t be surprised to hear that the novel upon which the film was based is told through Elio’s perspective. Everything we see, directly or indirectly, relates to Oliver: the film opens when he arrives at the villa, and ends with their last encounter. This is obvious from the get-go: dinner the night Oliver first arrives is not shown, as Oliver skips it to sleep and recover from his journey. Instead, we jump to Oliver coming downstairs for breakfast the next day ー a sight, of course, perceived by Elio. In a later scene showing the two lovers in the moonlight, the blue light shines on Oliver’s face, while darkness obscures Elio’s: we gaze at Oliver through Elio’s eyes.
It must be said that Timothée Chalamet plays the awkwardness of queer adolescent yearning sublimely. From his hesitation during masturbation scenes (there are a few) and his cracking voice in the moonlight, to his lankiness of movement, and even his naive confidence: all combine to create a fully believable and fully realised queer teen coming to terms with his own confused emotions and desires.
Top Tip: don’t watch interviews with the cast; it will remind you that Timothée Chalamet is, in fact, straight 😦
His slightly awkward wardrobe ー contrasted with his absolute obsession with Oliver’s breezy shirts and shorts ー compliments the characterisation nicely. The way he wears these sunglasses, for example, should tell you all you need to know about the care with which Elio has been created by everyone involved in building this character.
In a way, Oliver is a realisation of Elio’s youthful self-obsession: an adolescent fantasy come to life. Elio for Oliver seems to be that even more so.
I’ve seen this film a few times now ー including twice at the cinema when it came out ー and I’ve had different reactions to Oliver’s character each time. It is easy to get swept up in the (aforementioned) stunning cinematography and the intense romance without considering the characters in much depth. Examining them even briefly, it’s easy to see that both are heavily self-centred; though, while Elio’s selfishness can be excused by age, Oliver’s cannot. This is compounded with unfortunate casting choices: Timothée Chalamet was 20 at the time of filming, but comfortably passed for 17; Armie Hammer was nearly 30, but could definitely not pass for 24.
An exaggerated age difference combined with equal levels of immaturity causes some issues when you look beneath the surface level of intense longing and moonlight kisses. A 30-year-old fucking a 20-year-old? Not creepy. A 24-year-old fucking a 17-year-old? A little creepy. A 30-year-old fucking a 17-year-old? Definitely creepy, and surely illegal. You see our problem here.
Even through Elio’s idealised and loving gaze, we can discover several things to dislike about Oliver’s character. He seems to play with Elio for his own satisfaction: when they first kiss, he feigns restraint, cutting it off only when it is already too late, tantalizing Elio and leaving him wanting more. The day before they first sleep together, Oliver leaves Elio a note to tell him to “meet him at midnight”. Elio spends the whole day in anticipation; Oliver, knowing this, asks him the time. Later, Oliver stays out all afternoon, purposefully making Elio wait so he will desire him more desperately by the evening. While it is true that Oliver often checks in with Elio when they’re together to check if he’s okay, this can seem ingenuine: of course he’s going to say yes ー he’s madly in love with you, and you know it too.
Britney Line Time: “I wanna go all the way / Taking out my freak tonight / I wanna show all the dirt / I got running through my mind”
Let it be known that my dislike of a main character as a person is not inherently a dislike of the film. Rather, I wish to point out here that I found it confusing that other reviews, and especially audience feedback, fail to delve into Oliver’s character flaws. We can argue indefinitely about how inappropriate the age-gap is, but I found the way that Oliver exploits Elio’s adolescent fascination with him ultimately more problematic.
The fact that I wasn’t sure whether this was intentional or not ー from the writing, to the distracting cinematography, to Hammer’s portrayal ー is perhaps my biggest problem with the film as a whole. Everything else about this film seems so meticulously well-placed, but the ambiguity surrounding Oliver left me lost.
Call Me By Your Name
The title is first teased when they shout each other’s names joyfully whilst playing in the water (interestingly, just after they uncover the statue perhaps linking it to the Greco-Roman motif). When the titular motif initially appears, after they’ve had sex for the first time, Oliver’s request is a genuine and ardent. Elio repeats “Elio” to Oliver, and vice-versa. While it is presented (and received by Elio) as romantic, I couldn’t help but see it as a comment on the characters’ narcissism: the most romantic thing Oliver can think of to do is to make his lover assume his own identity. Considering that the film exists within such a contained world, whether this comment extends to gay men’s narcissism more generally is harder to say.
This idea of copying and assuming identity extends beyond simply “call me by your name”. Hell, even the letters in Elio’s name are contained within those of Oliver. On Elio’s part, romantic obsession becomes something even more intense, and he is further infantilised by his attempts not just to be more like Oliver, but indeed to become him; much as a child imitates a cool friend or an older sibling, Elio imitates Oliver. After he sees Oliver wearing a star of David around his neck, Elio does the same; Elio takes and wears Oliver’s shirt; Elio compares himself directly to Oliver, saying to his father “I think he was better than me”; Elio repeats Oliver’s letter to him out loud in his own voice. This infantilisation of Elio, only encouraged by Oliver himself, only makes the latter seem that much more manipulative.
Overall, this film is simply and unequivocally gorgeous: the landscapes, the historic buildings, the seemingly endless summer, the romance, and the looming promise of bittersweet heartbreak. Yet, when we look beneath the surface, its apparent merits become more polarising: the cinematography and symbolism gain more depth and meaning; conversely, romantic motivations become more sordid, confused and potentially problematic.
Ultimately, while its clumsiness in morality and meaning let it down to an extent, Call Me By Your Name has definitely earned its spot as a modern gay classic. We should, however, be careful about putting it on a pedestal: just like Oliver’s character, and indeed Elio’s, the film is not above criticism.