Everland Wells (jj) is a queer activist and an English major pursuing a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from IUPUI. They enjoy consuming films and other outlets of media to offer commentary about the queer community and their own personal life journey as a trans feminine person.
Fragility. Seclusion. Companionship. Confusion. Many ideas come to mind when thinking about 2017’s Call Me By Your Name as a whole. This is not merely a film about queer pride or celebration of one’s sexuality. It’s a survey of youth, experimentation and love that is new to not only its lead characters, Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), but to straight audiences as well. It’s a film made for a heteronormative class trying to understand romance that is alien to them. Its heterosexual nature butts heads with discovery-bound queerness.
Luca Guadagnino, this film’s director, is an openly gay man of Italian descent. The film’s screenwriter, James Ivory, is also gay, but Guadagnino’s experiences are deeply entrenched in the movie’s storyline. André Aciman, the author on whose novel the film is based, is married to a woman. In real life, Chalamet and Hammer are both handsome, heterosexual men. Many queer critics have questioned: Why are the film’s two leads not from the LGBTQ+ community themselves? I’ve come to believe there’s a bit of cleverness within that casting decision. A lot of queer people are already living their best gay lives, and the film wants to ease its straight, and phallus-curious audience, into the fact that same-sex erotica can be appealing, too.
The opening acts find Elio and Oliver exchanging performative emotions, as if they’re trying to determine the shape of their connection between each other. It reflects the authenticity of these actors’ heterosexual conditioning, which works in Guadagnino’s favor. Sometimes the tea is too hot, and you have to add ice to start finding its sweetness. And as we see, the tension of the battle with the characters’ queer identities lessens the more they get to know each other. This acting process, and the movie itself, chooses to convey a battle in which many queer-discovering peoples find themselves. Frankly, it would’ve seemed a bit exploitative to cast young people who were perhaps experiencing these battles in real life; we queer people often discover these things at a young and vulnerable age. When I was learning my gay ABC’s, I experienced life-altering traumas related to my identity that affected the way I treated people. Is it ethical to exploit the tragedies we experience? That’s why Call Me By Your Name is not a pride film. Instead, its approach turns toward the fragile and inexperienced — something so far removed from the deeper struggles queer people find in their tenure, but still relatable relative to how we began finding ourselves.
A humid northern Italy circa 1983 juxtaposes Elio’s cold, avoidant personality in the early acts of the film. Oliver is the opposite, a hothead blending into the Italian paint with an American hue. Elio’s father, Samuel (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a professor researching Greco-Roman history and statues while Oliver is serving as his assistant for their trip. (By the end, Samuel concludes that Oliver definitely was reading between different kinds of sheets). Elio at first does not want to be around Oliver. At a family dinner, Samuel points out Elio’s shy behavior. He perceives them getting along in the future, as he knows Elio is trying to think about what Oliver thinks of him, creating a confusion that turns into fear. People often hate what they fear, introducing a larger note on the perception of queerness in society to the film.
Annella (Amira Casar), Samuel’s wife and Elio’s mother, serves as support to Elio’s emotions and Perlman’s observations. She doesn’t get to shine as much in the film as her orchard of fruits. The apricots, and peaches, and what they go through, really provide the best supporting role in this film. Many times, we see a biblical reference to the knowledge fruit bears when constantly picked, eaten and used. With this knowledge, Elio and Oliver’s love for each other starts to become apparent. As a matter of fact, before a morning swim, a naked Elio peeks into Oliver’s room as Oliver dresses for the pool. Oliver is swimming while Elio, a talented musician, is deep into sheet music. Oliver wants to know what Elio is doing but Elio refuses to tell him what he’s writing. That’s when Oliver leaves to pick apricots with Annella and Elio, feeling a little guilty about his cold nature, follows him.
Later in the film, Oliver describes his arrogance as a way to convince Elio he was an extravagant guy to be around. I wouldn’t call it “extravagant,” I’d say it’s a protective barrier to hide his sensitive side. This forces Elio away from his shy personality, especially during a party a couple nights later where he dances with a young Chiara (Victoire Du Bois). Elio stares at Oliver the entire time, and the fellow teens at the party echo his envy. The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” plays as they dance, and it foreshadows a “new road” for both Elio and Oliver. Elio copies Oliver’s bravado and dances with another young woman, Marzia (Esther Garrel). Seeing this for the first time, it felt like Marzia and Elio’s connection was a cover-up. Things between the two evolve further once Elio begins to seek out behavior in the same manner as Oliver. Again, it feels like a performance act. Elio brags about almost having sex with Marzia, like I, resident gay audience member, haven’t seen this before.
Elio also tells Oliver he’s seen Chiara naked before when she visited their vacation villa. In this part of the film, Elio interprets “Love My Way” as copying the heteronormative lifestyle Oliver seems to live or even one-up him. He’s trying to be like the horses in the back, and not with the devil in his lap. (You know a Lil Nas X reference was coming.) That’s the sad thing about Elio’s relationship with Marzia, as he leads her on and uses sexual physicality as a means to get closer to Oliver’s mentality and explore his own sexuality.
This new Elio turns out to be a huge mistake because Oliver starts to listen to things that Elio really cares about — his music and his emotions. We all need TLC, right? All of their bravado was a distraction from the intimacy the two wanted for, and from, each other. The film lacks a bit in the buildup to Elio and Oliver’s relationship, and it seems like their connection is a little rushed. All in all, though, it’s genius about destroying heteronormative boundaries, and that’s tea I like sipping.
At one point, Annella tells a French story about a prince that fails to convey his love to a princess in the name of preserving their friendship. This, of course, contributes to Elio admitting his love to Oliver while in town picking up goods. They take a break and kiss in a lake near the magical Alpi Orobie. It feels like a kiss akin to Snow White’s revival.
But it’s also a kiss that prompts fear in Oliver, who leaves for a while. Meanwhile, Elio continues to use Marzia for sexual escape in Oliver’s absence. An openly gay couple, Isaac (Peter Spears, one of the film’s producers) and Mounir (Aciman) appear for a dinner and present to Elio a “hate what you fear” dichotomy. Elio doesn’t like them, even though they are longtime friends of the Perlmans. At this point, Elio really fears figuring out how to love Oliver because he doesn’t know if they will remain together. Issac and Mounir have already figured this out. Elio has not.
When Elio and Oliver have sex for the first time, Call Me By Your Name breaks boundaries. Elio begs for Oliver’s presence. “Call me by your name, and I will call you by yours,” Oliver tells Elio. Their personalities start to become one. It is now a companionship. But it’s not instantly harmonious. The next morning, Oliver sits silently at the breakfast table feeling guilt over what he’s done. The Perlmans sit in silence, perceiving his sin like God on Sunday, while Elio comes to sit. Oliver leaves for town, and Elio senses his shame. Oliver knows such behavior in this time is not socially accepted, and Elio confides in him to keep the secret.
Again, it’s that “new road.” One filled with pitted fruits. And after some jaw-dropping moments in Call Me By Your Name, you’ll know what it means to keep your vegetables separate from the fruit. Films have a way with making gay sex seem so exotic. Trust me: The sex life over here is relatively juice-free, but you know films will have their way with symbolic and literal climaxes.
Oliver and Elio end their time together on a trip away from the northern Italian town of Crema, where they hear a car stereo again playing “Love My Way.” They laugh and they dance. Their love for each other is cemented there forever. Elio does not want it to end, but he knows he can’t make it last as we learn Oliver’s father is unaccepting of such a choice.
When Elio returns home, Samuel delivers a magnificent monologue about the relationship Elio and Oliver had, and that it’s nobody’s business as to what went on between them. What’s important is the freedom to love your way.
That cements the meaning of Call Me By Your Name, which is to show that being yourself is more important than living in silence with your dream person. We all cry with Elio in the end because we know it hurts that Oliver has been forced to conform and move along.
Call Me By Your Name may have a limited perspective on the beginnings of queerness. But it understands that a bit of freedom to be who we want is all we ask. That’s what makes it a great film.