Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Can anyone watch this movie and not be reminded of their first overwhelming love? For me it was in college with a girl named Kristin; and just as Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) dance around each other for weeks here, repelling and attracting, repelling and attracting, so I did the same with Kristin—but for years. There was always an excuse—she with someone, I with someone—but mostly I felt unworthy. I couldn’t imagine it. Then I couldn’t imagine not letting her know, so I told her the spring of my senior year. And then suddenly, magically, we were seeing each other, in the few weeks before I graduated and she left for a summer job on the coast of Maine.
Another parallel: Near the end of the movie, and near the end of Oliver’s stay in Italy, the two are walking and kissing at night in the nearly deserted cobblestone streets of Bergamo, a northern Italian/Germanic town, and they come across some locals listening to music (“Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs); and Oliver, overcome by it all, and with his usual boundless enthusiasm, dances with the girl, while Elio, overcome by other things, stumbles to a nearby trashcan and throws up.
I doubt it was the drink; I think it was the love. I think that because that was me. When I realized my case with Kristin wasn’t hopeless, what did I do? Dance? Shout with joy? Sure. I also returned home and threw up. For a time, it made me think our anatomical symbol for love was all wrong. It shouldn’t be the heart, I decided, but the stomach. We should send each other cards with stomachs on them. Our love notes should read “I (stomach) you” and “You make me nauseous.”
Keeping the lovers apart
Can anyone imagine a more languorous film? That’s the word that kept coming to me: languid. It’s a movie that feels like a summer day with nothing much to do.
It’s a slow dance. It’s circular. There’s the doors that open and close—literally and metaphorically. In this impossibly beautiful Italian country home in Lombardy, Italy, Oliver is using Elio’s room, and Elio is forced into the smaller room on the other side of a shared bathroom, and the doors are like invitations or refusals. Generally when one is opening the other is closing. It’s red light, green light, keep away. There are little verbal attacks, snarky little bites that confuse the other, and probably the biter. The two men show off and compete with each other, and, for a time, each sublimates his desire with a pretty Italian girl. (As sublimation goes, that's not a bad way.) The point of the love story is to keep the lovers apart, and dramatists often bend over backwards to find ways, but “Call Me By Your Name” reminds us that we do a pretty fine job of it on our own.
You keep the lovers apart because once they get together it’s fairly dull business for the viewer. Here, too, a bit. We’re no longer building toward something, we’re just at something. I found my attention wavering.
But screenwriter James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory) and director Luca Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash”) still keep it interesting. Maybe because we know it’s ending shortly? Because they go there with the fruit? Because there’s always the specter of possible gay bashing—that it’ll end in violence and pain? Thank god, it doesn’t. It ends traditionally, at a train station. No violence, just pain.
I was confused by the title before I saw the film but not after: “Call me by your name,” one says, “and I’ll call you by mine.” The wish to subsume yourself in the other, to be the other. Is it stronger in homosexual relationships? Where it’s easier to be the other? Oliver and Elio trade names and clothes and secrets. Then again, Kristin and I traded shirts. Or maybe she just wore mine.
Yes, the privilege here is immense. The Perlman family has cooks and gardeners and (the greatest privilege of all) lives with meaning. The father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an archeology professor, Oliver is his graduate student, they are living lives of the mind. They have the dining table outdoors, and the meals served without fuss, and volleyball on the grass. Friends drop by. I envied the place, and the privilege, but mostly I envied the intelligence. Most movies make me feel too smart; this made me feel the opposite. Like I hadn’t studied enough. Like, at 54, I really needed to hit the books again.
In that final phone conversation, in winter during Hanukah, when Oliver tells Elio he’s getting married, he also tells him how lucky he is that he has parents who are so understanding—so open—about his homosexuality. “My father would’ve carted me off to a correctional facility,” he says. And Elio is lucky. To be who he is and where he is with the people he’s with. He's particularly lucky to have a father who gives him “the talk," the real talk, that every sensitive son needs to hear. I certainly needed to hear it in the summer of 1987. I still need to hear it. I want the speech on an MP3 file. I'd listen to it weekly:
We rip out so much of ourselves, to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new.
Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out. And as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.
Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.
Staying open is so tough. Most things in life push us in the opposite direction. Most movies, too. “Call Me By Your Name” opened me up in a way I have not felt in a long time. It’s the best movie of the year.
At the start of the movie, as Elio first watches Oliver arrive, he jokingly calls him an interloper. So he is. For life.