A Queer Love Story That’s Gorgeous, If Not Groundbreaking

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A still from Call Me By Your Name (courtesy Sony Classics)

Call Me By Your Name is a movie hackneyed genre markers fly toward with abandon. We could call it variously a summer romance, a sexual awakening, a gay-ish coming of age, or yet another installment in a centuries-long cultural obsession with wealthy people hanging out in Italy. But in its essence, the story is a version of one of our very oldest: White Boy Grows Up.

The question of how groundbreaking a movie in which two beautiful Caucasian men fall in love can be is at this point basically decided. Although there remain ample pockets of resistance, both global and domestic, to the representation of same-sex love stories, the ground has been definitively broken. Nearly half a century after Stonewall, audiences could be forgiven for meeting the premise — a professor’s son discovers his sexuality at the hands of an older man, complete with wayward glances, timid proddings, furtive underwear sniffing, and the wisdom that follows being first broken by love — with a feeling of having been there and done that. Following Carol and Moonlight, both of which told radically new and important stories, the movie contributes little to the urgent contemporary project of diversifying representation.

It is, nevertheless, sweepingly gorgeous and, despite telling a traditional story via largely traditional means, offers several subtle innovations. For one thing, as an audience we are for the most part liberated from the inevitable fall of the heterosexual hammer. Although Oliver and Elio’s romance does end, and Oliver returns to the States to be married, we see in Elio’s burgeoning sexuality and the way in which his liberal parents offer their tacit approval — even at times their seeming encouragement — of the affair, a glimmer of that remarkable prospect: a queer life lived without the burdens and distortions of shame. How we respond to Elio, whether he is in the end the boy we want to flourish and protect or just another obnoxious image of a privilege that strains belief, is basically dependent on which axes we are most at pains to grind.

A still from Call Me By Your Name (courtesy Sony Classics)

This privileged milieu (Elio’s father is a Classics professor and the family is absurdly literate, code-switching between Italian, French, and English, nosing around in Heraclitus, rushing off to Lake Como to examine a recently dredged up Hellenistic bronze) does, however, allow director Luca Guadagnino to surprise us with a subtle and compelling contribution to that most tired of arguments, namely, Why Do We Need the Humanities Today? (Or in 1983, rather, when the movie is set.) Not only do the the film’s visual references enmesh it in a web of historical queer art and longing (in one shot Elio is beautifully framed as an echo of Caravaggio’s The Lute Player, in another we spy a Mapplethorpe print in the corner his bedroom), but in treating each art object as tactile and intrinsically sensuous, Guadagnino is able to flatten hierarchies of art, history, sex, and earth, depicting them as a web of interpenetrating experiences. We watch Elio listening to his mother translate from Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron, a story of a knight who wonders whether it’s better to speak his love or to die, and soon after we see the story move him to addressing his desire explicitly to Oliver. In the statue-from-the-lake scene, I was delighted to see the breeziness with which Elio, Oliver and the professor pick the Greek relic up off the ground and pass it around, examining it, coming to know it with their hands. Many moments such as these, combined with Elio’s parents’ tolerance of and basic empathy with their son’s desires, make the film an example of an unexpectedly fresh humanism. Art and we are earth, in other words.

Make no mistake: the liberal bubble is thick. We have rightly come to be suspicious of stories that present themselves as universal — and even as a story of desire, the film’s references, techniques, and assumptions are vastly conventional and European. It is Guadagnino’s skill to make them feel new to us, as they are new to Elio. Politics, when they appear — a portrait of Mussolini in a country town, a comical and bickering pair of ancient Italian lefties — are something we glance off to return to our boys. Whether the film uses such moments to ironize Elio’s youthful nonchalance, or to extend an unhelpful argument that love and pleasure are a zone beyond and superior to petty political concerns, is an open question. For what it’s worth, Guadagnino has said he’d be interested in the way a sequel would have to deal with Italy’s Berlusconi years, in some ways a foreshadowing of our own current National Bad Acid Trip.

Yet, for two hours and change, Call Me By Your Name is an overwhelmingly pleasant and seductive place to live. Some of the scenes here, including a late one in which Elio’s father validates and affirms his experience with Oliver, will be powerfully therapeutic moments for certain viewers, rivaled by few others in the canon of mainstream queer cinema. The final shot, in which credits roll beside a close-up of Elio’s face as he looks into the fire and absorbs the news of Oliver’s engagement, is not only an astonishing piece of acting, but also a wonderfully realized moment of cinematic mirroring. Watching this young actor, Timothée Chalamet, as his face slides and twists through grief to something like knowledge, we recognize the mess and basic dignity of first love’s pain. I snuck a look behind me to the other faces in the theater and saw many locked in reflection with the one on the screen, moving with it. Exactly what this mirror has to offer you will depend ultimately on how readily or reluctantly you can call yourself by Elio’s name.

Call Me By Your Name is out now in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

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