Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is easily described with a few images: the lush, sensual Italian countryside, two boys folded into the poetic haziness of long hot days, morning swims, exposed skin, bike rides, fresh fruit, and cigarettes. Early reviews leaked plot details by applauding the film’s hopeful, if not idealistic agenda: unlike most gay romances, CMBYN does not end in death or violence or AIDS. Later reviews (as well as results from the “precursors” as we enthusiasts like to call critics circle awards and everything else leading up to the Oscars) singled out the performance of newcomer Timothee Chalamet, whose depiction of 18-year-old Elio was described by writer Bret Easton Ellis as perhaps “the greatest portrayal of male adolescence on film.”
Indeed, the film was all of these things. Particularly for me, Chalamet’s performance was the highlight; it served as a reminder of what it was like to feel as a teenager, because in late adolescence everything feels miserably and joyously too much. Chalamet’s Elio renders the balancing act of adolescence beautifully as he struggles to maintain his cool but is ultimately tethered down by an awkward body, goofy impulses, and unwieldy hormones that rebel against his pursuit of seamless adulthood.
Beyond this, I found there to be an essential fantasy at the core of the film, the stuff of dreams that wants to spill out from its borders, but is yet contained within symbols, metaphors, the innocence of youth, and utopic spaces. CMBYN is concerned with preserving in amber all the feelings and images of an endless summer, that sort of fantasy-turned-reality that is only possible on rare occasion, at the right time, at the right place, and almost always temporarily. This is why the film is set during a six-week vacation, somewhere in Northern Italy, at the summer home of a wealthy, intellectual family that is compassionate, kind, and open-minded, one could say exceptionally so. Beauty is everywhere to be discovered, in the rustic architecture and the archaeological wonders scattered everywhere in and around the unnamed Italian town, the countless seemingly unspoiled bodies of water that seem to suggest our characters are the first ones to dip into these remote rivers and ponds. Everything feels lush and new, everyday a minor miracle, just as Elio inches forward into new territory with the tender curiosity of a small animal (playing with Oliver’s shorts) or with a more matter-of-fact hunger (as in, reaching for Oliver’s crotch). Ultimately to liken Elio’s unfolding with the sort of privileged discoveries when, for instance, the characters find the arm of an ancient adonis-like statue, reaffirms Michael Stuhlbarg’s ending monologue. In this case, so few LGBT individuals are lucky enough to live out their wildest romantic dreams.
And so in this way, I find CMBYN to be a gay film unlike notable ones of the past decade or so. Of the high profile LGBT movies that come to mind, Carol’s melancholy restraint is incomparable. Brokeback Mountain is a horror-tragedy by today’s cultural standards. Blue is the Warmest Color is of course famous for its long, almost monotonous (and I would say unrealistic, but that is for another writing) sex scenes. By tracing the beginning, middle, and end of a young woman’s first intense love, the film purports to breaking taboos of homosexual sexuality by habitually weaving scenes of graphic sex into the fabric of a social realism narrative. CMBYN is an extremely sensual film, but there are no explicit sex scenes. Some critics, namely Washington Post writer Garrett Schlichte, sees this decision as commercial cowardice, a failed opportunity to put the public through a necessary discomfort. Maybe this is the case, though I don’t think the film is being marketed towards anyone that would (at least openly) express watching gay sex as a “necessary discomfort.”
But then, everything in CMBYN was teeming with sexuality, not just the obvious (i.e. the sparsely clad bodies of Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet), but also the glistening colors and the soft fluttering of the mise-en-scene, the score and the diegetic music played by Elio– everything was hedonistic splendor. Ultimately I found that the “naughty but tasteful” sex scenes resembled dreams, at least how Freud explained them to us, as little erotic parcels, displaced, turned on their heads, made into little synecdoches packed with unknown desire. In what modes is our desire greatest, at its most intense? In the act of desiring, of yearning, or in the consummation of it? Or as the age old question goes, is sex the sexiest thing there is? Is that a tautology?
[I’m thinking of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s bewilderment that people are not more disgusted with flowers, because they are so obviously shameless, splayed out as open invitations to be consumed by insects and other wildlife. If only we were more aware of the perversions we indulge in everyday, in seemingly commonplace things.]
And so in this way I found CMBYN’s feverish delirium was productive, a token to our greatest desires, perhaps rendered unconsciously at times. The ending scene, when Oliver calls Elio with news of his marriage, is like one big wake-up call, a rupture from the outside world that is less understanding, less magical than the reality of Elio or the filmic dimensions of CMBYN.