Call Me By Your Name is a love story contained in one summer, sometime in the 1980s. The lovers in question are 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the American grad-student interning with Elio’s archaeology-professor-father (Michael Stuhlbarg) for the summer.
There aren’t spoilers in this review because this isn’t that sort of film – there are no plot twists here; no dramatic irate mobs or last-minute-confessions leading to a runaway happily-ever-after. All that happens is the discovery of a mutual attraction, and an endless European summer spent exploring it.
Early on in the film, Elio is showing Oliver around the Italian village where they are staying.
“What do you do around here?”Oliver asks him.
“Wait for the summer to end,” says Elio.
As Elio, Timothee Chalamet looks extremely young – all long limbs and wiry body, carelessly flung across his father’s lap, falling into a pool, reading in the grass. I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Graduate- another film about a bored young man in summer. However this is thankfully not that bleak film and although older, Oliver is not Mrs. Robinson.
We see the story unfold from Elio’s perspective. At first, he’s insecure and diffident, going the common route of feigning dislike. He watches Oliver from the corner of his eye, over his book. Oliver is the ‘other’ here – initially impossibly aloof, and ‘dude-like’, his seeming alpha masculinity heightened by the contrast of Elio’s slight figure. Over time, as Elio finds that the attraction is mutual, Oliver becomes demystified, and vulnerable, as always happens with the happy coincidence of reciprocity.
While watching I found myself thinking how similar we all are in love. I thought it over and over as I watched Elio and Oliver address each other by secret-names, wrestle, kiss clumsily and share insecurities. With our lovers we get a chance to be children again, feel safe enough to be silly, gross, and weak. Isn’t this the stuff intimacy is made of?
One could argue (as a friend of mine did) that there was more lust than love here. I disagree – in the first haze of love you’ve craved awhile, desire is all mixed up in it. Kisses can have a desperation to them and bodies say things you can’t quite articulate.
There’s a lot left unsaid- we don’t see Elio and Oliver converse about anything ‘deep’: discuss past heartbreaks or plans for the future. We only know that they are both Very Intelligent People (they casually discuss Heraclitus and play Bach-by-way-of-Liszt). In that sense, the film feels more like a few distracted glances into the first flush of love, than really sketched out character-studies. Perhaps that’s the point. When first in love, the world can be reduced to a laser-focused-slice-of-your-life. If this lack of detail bothers you, Call Me By Your Name might leave you a bit cold. If you can buy into the mood, you feel sated enough.
As an Indian who grew up in an undemonstrative middle-class home, two other things struck me while watching the film. The first was how free everyone was with their bodies- Elio spends much of the film shirtless like it’s no big deal. And perhaps on a related note, the second was how easy everyone was with their affection. There’s the French custom of greeting everyone with a kiss on each cheek, but there’s also Elio’s parents with their arms around each other, and that one scene where the family is reading together on the couch- Elio is sprawled across his father’s lap, and his mother leans over and reads out of a book. It’s nice to see.
I liked the film for many reasons though I could have done without the gratuitous nature-shots. The performances are all strong. There’s a much-lauded scene near the end where Elio’s father is consoling Elio, who is dealing with the almost-physical heartache of a sudden unbridgeable distance. It’s such a joy to see – who among us would not have liked to have this unconditional support (that too devoid of platitudes) from a parent finding out for the first time that their child might be gay?
This film doesn’t smack you over the head with its queerness; it’s not a Public Service Announcement for Gay Rights. It just lets its lovers be, sort of like Elio’s parents let him be, in yet another departure from Indian norms.
Denene Millner wrote a piece for the New Yorker recently where she opines that black kids don’t always want to be reading about Harriet Tubman and the trials of slavery. They need stories about playing in the snow and being afraid of bullies in school. I say let the queer kids have their unexceptional love stories. Love is love. Queer love is love. It has to be stronger often because the circumstances are more difficult- but let us have these kinds of narratives about queer love – unremarkable except in the way that love always is when you find it.