Warning: What could be considered spoilers are below throughout.
Just when Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is about to give what you want—what it’s spent over an hour building up to—it cruelly denies it. As principal characters Oliver (Armie Hammer) and the decidedly younger Elio (Timothée Chalamet) begin to consummate the sexual tension that’s been building since Oliver entered the frame in the movie’s first few minutes, Guadagnino’s camera turns toe and glides off. It pans away from the bed they’re on to peer out of the nearby window, settling on a tree as Oliver and Elio exchange sighs. No mere cut, the stylistic anomaly that is this tracking shot in a film otherwise devoid of them is a deliberate move that seems to signal modesty if we’re being charitable (and sexual shame on the part of an openly gay filmmaker, if we aren’t).
Guadagnino has gone on to explain just how pointed this decision was. Shortly after his film debuted at Sundance this year to a rapturous response, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter he was asked about the lack of explicit sex in his movie. The director responded:
I wasn’t interested at all. The tone would’ve been very different from what I was looking for. I wanted the audience to completely rely on the emotional travel of these people and feel first love. I didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters. It was important to me to create this powerful universality, because the whole idea of the movie is that the other person makes you beautiful—enlightens you, elevates you. The other is often confronted with rejection, fear or a sense of dread, but the welcoming of the other is a fantastic thing to do, particularly in this historical moment.
The idea that in order to foster “universality” and shield characters in a same-sex affair from malignant discrimination (or merely the benign detection of difference) bespeaks a form of covering—a term coined by writer Kenji Yoshino to describe the suppression of integral parts of one’s personhood (in Yoshino’s context: sexuality and race) in order to be accepted by greater straight society. “To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream,” wrote Yoshino in his 2006 book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.
Covering is a highly effective tactic—respectability politics that removed sex from sexuality were crucial in the ultimate victory of marriage equality. But it’s also a massive burden on queer people to manage and compartmentalize their sexuality in a world where heterosexuality and heteronormativity are so unavoidable that they’re as integral to life and easy to take for granted as the air we breathe.
Now, Call Me By Your Name is an unmistakably gay romance featuring two men who have sex unmistakably. Vintage Will & Grace it ain’t. We aren’t looking at an entirely neutered portrayal of gay partnership—there is, in fact a scene that occurs the day after Oliver and Elio have sex, in which Oliver drops to his knees, briefly fellates Elio and then retreats (he says it’s to test Elio’s virility but it’s clearly mostly to fuck with him). Neither this nor the slight consummation scene, though, have quite the intensity or grit of an earlier scene portraying hetero sex, in which Elio fucks a girl around his age named Marzia (Esther Garrel), at least partially to take his obsessive mind off of Oliver. We watch him pumping on top of her for a while, his back to the camera, and then apologizing profusely when he comes too soon.
Further, Guadagnino frequently zigs when the source material compels him to zag. A scene in the book in which Oliver and Elio shit in front of each other, reifying their bond, is perhaps unsurprisingly nowhere to be found, and the movie’s already infamous scene, in which Elio masturbates with a peach under his boxers, comes devoid of the book’s payoff: Oliver eating it with Elio’s semen in it. In the film, Elio starts crying before Oliver can take a bite.
By now, I think I’ve made clear my disdain for the beautifying of gay life for the sake of pandering to those who find it inherently unseemly. The idea that in order to be considered fully human, one must reduce his or her humanity is fundamentally absurd. If a straight person’s motive is to hate the sin but love the sinner, I’m not going to help them carry out their cockamamie logic for the sake of keeping everyone feeling comfortable.
So on that very crucial level, Call Me By Your Name does not work for me, does not speak to me, does not speak for me. On almost every other level, though, it does.
This is a sumptuous, lovely film, a perfectly rendered memory of a perfect moment in its characters’ lives. It captures something Elio and Oliver would hold onto forever if memories were tangible, and it makes you feel privileged for consuming it in a way that allows you to go back and replay it exactly as it happened. Its vivid pastel hues repeatedly evoke watercolor paintings. Its actors’ vitality and chemistry imbue its world of extraordinary luxury with realism. For me, Call Me By Your Name is a triumph of aesthetics over politics in a time when art is more likely than ever to be judged for what it represents instead of what it actually does. I do not love its methods of selling itself as palatable, but I very much enjoy the overall product.
Besides, Call Me By Your Name was always going to be marked by compromise. What’s so special about its source material, André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, is, in fact, not its love story, which is rather spare and generic (24-year-old philosophy student Oliver stays for the summer with two scholars in their Northern Italy summer home, has an affair with their 17-year-old son). What’s truly distinctive about the book is the narrator Elio’s anxious, stream-of-conscious narrative that picks through every bit of minutiae in Oliver’s behavior, interrogating his intentions, his feelings, the actual meaning behind his every move. A seven-word note that Oliver writes Elio—“Grow up. I’ll see you at midnight.”—yields two pages of dissection from Elio in Aciman’s novel. In Guadagnino’s movie, Elio merely reads it once in voiceover.
In its method of storytelling, Aciman’s book ultimately speaks to how much of our objects of desire are projections of our own imagination—Oliver remains a sparsely sketched mystery throughout even after his feelings for Elio are mutual, even after Elio has filled over 200 pages with his hypotheses and responses. In that sense, Guadagnino’s aforementioned summation of the movie’s theme—“the other person makes you beautiful—enlightens you, elevates you”—is not a precise replication of Aciman’s but its inverse. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction: Aciman suggests that you make the other person beautiful. Though the book is largely set in the early ’80s (as is the movie, entirely), the idea that what we desire is so informed by our own minds remains extremely relevant in the age of geolocation apps, when so many men meet their partners on the basis of a few textually exchanged words and some still photographs, their minds filling in the blanks and ultimately leading them to share space with the actual human behind the image they’ve created.
Via the movie’s rendering in flesh of what exist as just ideas in the book, we get much more of a sense of the connection between Elio and Oliver. Hammer is beaming with charisma, his character’s every invitation to Elio (to go into town, to go swimming) ratchets up the sexual tension in a far more straightforward, palatable way than the jittery, is-he-or-isn’t-he way it plays out in the book. Chalamet carries Elio with a deeper self-assuredness than the book allows—the kid is, after all, a genius who plays multiple instruments and speaks multiple languages. His subtle declaration of love for Oliver on a piazetta comes out as matter-of-fact in the movie, whereas in the book it gushes out like champagne that’s been shaken since it was bottled. And though Oliver’s age is never specified, Hammer would never be mistaken for 24 (he’s now 31). The considerably increased age difference from the book’s seven years makes Oliver’s mentorship and his treatment of Elio as an equal more poignant.
It’s easy to get swept up in the film’s many riches—the outdoor scenery is so lush with greenery you can practically smell the grass, and there’s a scene that takes place at a lake that’s one big gorgeous blue-green ombre. Everything—the sky, the water, the mountains—falls on its unique point between those two colors. And then maybe at some point, you’ll realize like I did that this in many ways beyond its portrayal of sex, this is the most mainstream user-friendly version of a gay relationship possible. Two impossibly good-looking, charismatic white guys have an effortlessly loving bond while swaddled in affluence with nothing better to do then feed their brains with books and their souls with each other. They devote their summer to leisure and waste not a second. The closest thing this film has to an antagonist is the limited nature of their time together (Elio’s parents, especially his father, are so compassionate it’s almost surreal). It untangles the struggle and turmoil from the typical depictions of same-sex romance. This is far from everyone’s reality, but then Call Me By Your Name is a fantasy, as most movies are.
Moments before the film ends, a now-absent Oliver proves his enduring love to Elio by declaring, “I remember everything!” It was Call Me By Your Name’s execution of rose-colored retrospect that I related to far beyond its depiction of a gay relationship, and it was its invoking of the melancholy of time’s passage that pressed out my sadness. By now, I should be used to the inevitable malaise that sets in at the end of August, and yet it hits me just as hard, year after year.
It is the transmission of halcyon and the ensuing tragedy of its evaporation that Guadagnino nails in his adaptation. In the book, Oliver refers to the place “right on the tiled edge of the pool” at Elio’s house, where he sunbathes everyday, as “heaven.” I don’t remember him calling it that in the movie, but he doesn’t need to because it’s obvious that’s what it is.
Call Me By Your Name is currently playing the New York Film Festival and will open in New York and Los Angeles on November 24.