Full spoilers for Call Me By Your Name.
Call Me By Your Name, directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, is not your typical hetero-normative coming of age story. We are given an insight into Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) budding romance for an older man, Oliver (Armie Hammer), who comes to stay in Elio’s idyllic family getaway to learn from his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeologist.
One might compare the romantic narrative to a movie such as The Reader, due to the age dynamic. Just as Kate Winslet’s character Hanna has a level of control over her younger lover, Michael, so too does Oliver over the impressionable 17-year-old Elio. However, the age dynamic present in Call Me By Your Name is not the subject of my criticism. In fact, I find Elio’s attraction to an older man understandable as Oliver appears secure in his sexuality, comforting for a teenager just only discovering himself, which can be seen when he buries his face into Oliver’s chest when emotional. I found that throughout the film, Guadagnino conveyed the relationship between the two men as natural. Through their encounters occurring primarily in a place of nature, either in a field, among trees or in the house that always has a connection to the outside through its open windows, along with shots that capture them melting into each other as if their shapes fit perfectly.
However this portrayal of homosexuality as natural and ‘normal’ (to coin the phrase) was brought to a sudden halt by Elio’s encounter with a peach. Although it is a common trope for a young pubescent man to be overtly sexual, there was something disconcerting about this scene. From the close up capturing Elio’s finger piercing the peach the audience are aware of what he is thinking. This exploration being shown only a few scenes after his sexual experience with Oliver does not leave a sweet taste in the mouth. As we watch Elio hesitantly lower the peach, along with intense sounds of his activity it is difficult not to feel as if his behaviour is strange. There appears to be a clear link between his sexuality with Oliver and with the peach, considering that straight after, Oliver is giving him oral pleasure. When Oliver finds the peach his response is, “Oh I see, you’ve moved on to the plant kingdom… what’s next, minerals?” Although Oliver lightheartedly comments on Elio’s sexual discrepancy, it is as if he expected it, as if through homosexuality he understands what Elio has done.
Elio: I’m sick aren’t I?
Oliver: I wish everybody was as sick as you.
Elio: Please don’t do that.
The equation of the peach and homosexuality I find problematic. With an audience base that, at times, is in need of an eye opener when considering the minority or the marginalised, it is hard to imagine why Guadagnino would give a space for an easy criticism of ‘immorality’. Whilst the rest of the film captures their relationship as beautiful and natural, relating it to Italian sculpture and art, the tabooed peach scene combined with the ending, Oliver calling Elio to say he is now engaged to be married to a woman, makes me lose hope for the potential their relationship had.
Throughout the film Elio only receives support for his sexuality. In fact, I would go further than that, he is treated just as he is when he has a short lived heterosexual romance with Marzia. Neither of his parents address his homosexuality as an issue. When his mother picks him up after he is left heartbroken by Oliver’s departure she doesn’t comment on their relationship, she doesn’t comment at all, she leaves a silent space for his heartbreak. His father is even more understanding of Elio’s position, one of the very last scenes depicts the father son relationship as touching and comfortable, erasing any sort of shame Elio might be feeling:
“You know when you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Look, you had a beautiful friendship, maybe more than a friendship, and I envy you. My place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away. Pray their sons land on their feet but I am not such a parent. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster. I may have come close but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back or stood in the way.”
Mr Perlman’s support of Elio is what any child would want in both a situation of heartbreak and of identity. However, although his words lead us to believe that past the narrative of this movie, Elio will continue as his true self Mr Perlman’s own example is hetero-normative. Guadagnino sets up Elio’s father to have a homosexual aura around him, when gazing at sculpture with Oliver he contemplates the curves of the male body, “as if they’re daring you to desire them.” Here is a man who has clear impulses towards the opposite sex and yet for some reason is held back. Held back perhaps by prejudice, as homosexual relationships would have been frowned upon to a greater extent in his youth. The issue here is that, besides Elio, both of the other male examples in his universe resort to a hetero-normative life. As an audience we are given two ‘stable’ relationships – that of Mr and Mrs Perlman and the unknown woman that Oliver becomes engaged to. The failed relationship, the summer fling, the heartbreak, comes from Elio and Oliver’s homosexual affair, which once presented as so natural now seems impossible.
However, despite the criticisms, Call me By Your Name is a fantastic film that I would definitely recommend.
Call Me By Your Name (2017), directed by Luca Guadagnino, is distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures Releasing, certificate 15.