Call Me By Their Names
by Lindsay C. Sidders and Sebastiano Bazzichetto
TORONTO – Based on the striking novel by André Aciman, “Call Me By Your Name” (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2017) is the (queer) coming-of-age-story of Elio Perlman, a 17-year old of Italian and American (and French and Jewish) descent, living in Northern Italy with his mother and father in the summer of 1983.
This apparently conventional theme intersects with the more provocative motif of hermeneutic distance: how does the academic present understand antiquity? How does an Old World sensibility clash with a brash New World cool? In what ways do the young understand the old(er)? How does a parent perceive a child? How does one understand oneself over the course of a lifetime?
The movie examines these complications of connection – whether cultural, sexual, social – and the desirability of fostering emotional continuity and openness in the course of one’s own life, depicting the paths of several characters.
Set in the abundant Italian countryside, within the frescoed walls of a rumpled villa, the film treats the viewer to Roman baths filled with sparkling waters, rich brick and stonework, bursting peach fruit, greens of every hue (a palpable Garden of Eden), and taut (white) bodies. The visual world of “Call Me By Your Name” (or better, in this case, Guadagnino’s vision of Aciman’s world) is complete and fecund. The fertility – the readiness to receive, ripen and yield – of the landscape and mis-en-scene is paralleled by the familial and extra-familial relationships Elio intertwines. His parents give him freedom, include him in their own intimate rituals, and trust him in his naïvety unshakingly. The Perlman estate staff (a gardener-factotum and a cook) enable Elio to lead a comfortable, but never ostentatious, and carefree lifestyle while noticing his comings-and-goings and extending care and support through another set of eyes, ears, and hands. Elio is given permission to make mistakes; he is given the privilege of unrestrained agency – he is granted the freedom to ramble and grow.
“Oliver, Oliver, Oliver…”
We see the world of 1983 Italy mostly through Elio’s eyes: the movie seems to bear an objective angle, but the camera primarily follows the teenager’s emotional growth and adventures. The turning point of his summer (and the movie’s spark) is the arrival of the hunky Adonis-esque research assistant Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, who is hosted by Elio’s parents and will work specifically with his father, an academic of Greco-Roman antiquity. Oliver soon reveals his offhanded nature, which sometimes veers into the uncouth and brawny (he destroys an egg “à la coque” during his first breakfast). We get to know Oliver through Elio’s perspective, and often his very gaze. Oliver seems to know what he wants and how to get it, although we rarely see what he thinks or does. In general terms, in a time span of six weeks, we are led to view some vignettes of a more complicated mosaic, when the two male protagonists are together, or when Elio is left alone, musing and questioning his own thoughts. Played by relative newcomer Timothée Chalamet, Elio exudes a boyish vulnerability that contrasts with the (imagined) hard confidence of Hammer’s Oliver. Their union is as aesthetically beautiful as the balance of their relationship is asymmetrical. Oliver commands, teases, and finally, acquiesces. He is always destined to leave. He knows better than Elio the expectations of heteronormativity and dangers of subversion, although we are never told his exact age.
Relation with the past, never too old
The relation with the past is constantly sketched, but never really faced until the day Oliver and Elio are to witness the discovery of a Roman statue, dredged from the bottom of Lake Garda. This episode is allegedly one of the keystones of the movie: the statue and its discovery are clearly a symbol, not only a factual event. It encompasses the ancient principles of beauty, perfection, youth, strength and eros, the feeling that is now arising between the two protagonists. The finding of the ephebic bronze body epitomizes the relationship between Elio and Oliver – the younger and the older, the learner and the seasoned – moreover creating a connection between the present and a mysterious, long-lost past. A golden past that represents the matter of discussion for Oliver and Elio’s father, and the very reason why Oliver finds himself in Italy that summer. The finding is also a stratagem to help the two reconnect, through the shaking of the statue’s hand, after a couple of days where Oliver is rarely seen at home, and Elio has no interaction with him.
Fathers and sons: expectations and authenticities
In the last half an hour of the film, there are a number of exquisitely executed scenes that communicate a philosophy of life. One of the most poignant is a conversation that happens between father and son. Following Oliver’s departure, Elio’s father, masterfully played by Michael Stuhlbarg, softly praises the “friendship” between Oliver and Elio, expressing a wistfulness that hangs lushly over the entire film. He urges his son to resist pushing away his feelings of despair; he counsels him not to build a wall around his heart but rather to fling open the gates of that same heart to the robust garden of life. The elder Perlman explains that as one moves forward through life a crevasse forms between one’s external persona and one’s inner emotional life, ‘authentic’ self, and/or natural desires. This gulf develops as one experiences the traumas of the quotidian – oppression, heartbreak, death – and over the course of a life, a person will instinctually ‘numb-out’ so as not to feel the full force of their emotions. Adopting an external and public persona to enable this emotional avoidance is typical, and then the practice of performing becomes the default, in public and private. His father asks – pleads with – Elio to embrace the passion of both despair and joy. It is a tender appeal.
The film ends brilliantly on Elio’s face as it absorbs and yields to a spectrum of emotions, forcing the audience to face and witness his suffering. All of the sudden, the vessel of adolescence has come to its harbour, and Elio is compelled to become, as in a Coleridge’s rhyme, sadder and wiser.