2017 feels like the year for controversial films, whether that’s Mother, Wonder Wheel, Get Out, hell, even The Last Jedi. They’ve all been controversial and divisive for one reason or another. Call Me By Your Name is no different.
Set during the summer of 1983, it tracks the romance between a young man, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and an older American student, Oliver (Armie Hammer). The controversy arises from Elio and Oliver’s ages, 17 and 26, respectively. This arcane and hypocritical displeasure arose from certain people who shall not be named…..cough….JAMES WOODS.
However, the most controversial portion of Call Me By Your Name is that neither character is shamed because of their love. The film is set during the 1980’s. It’s not as if the 80’s was a bastion for sexual freedom. Nevertheless, these two characters navigate their sexuality in what’s mostly a consequence free environment.
Director Luca Guadagnino is especially interested in the organic metastasization of love. Most directors, when filming characters moving from place to place, might show the characters getting on their bike, leaving their front door, then arriving at their destination. The in-between, the actual travelling, would be treated as filler and cut out. Gaudagnino doesn’t dispense these shots, instead he uses the long bike rides between Elio and Oliver, from Elio’s parents’ home to town, as windows into their relationship.
Additionally, Guadagnino is interested in the physical, in the sweat and gleam from a summer’s day on the male figure, the coolness of water against warm skin, the sweetness of apricots not only in your mouth, but on your body as well, and the play between light and shadow. It’s an attack and a caress on the senses at once, inviting and pleading with you to feel what Elio and Oliver feel, to taste what they taste, to love as they love.
These senses extend to the people around them as well. Elio’s father, Mr. Pearlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), every year invites a new student to study with him. This year he invites Oliver. Mr. Pearlman is non-judgmental of Elio and Oliver’s time together, rarely questioning what appears to be obvious. Elio’s mother, Mrs. Pearlman (Amira Casar) is equally as inviting to their relationship, even offering advice to her son. Neither of Elio’s parents reproach what their son might be, and that might be the most revolutionary portion of the film.
Mostly, Call Me By Your Name is a cat and mouse game, with no clear indication of who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. Guadagnino’s focus throughout the film is on Elio. It’s always Oliver disappearing to God knows where, and Elio who’s pursuing. The film follows Elio as he pursues his desires, for women and men, and apricots too. If you’ve wondered how an apricot could become a sex toy, well even if you haven’t, there’s a step-by-step tutorial in Call Me By Your Name. That’s screenwriter gold brought to you by James Ivory.
However, it would be disingenuous to discuss Ivory’s work based solely on that scene. He should also be credited with writing alluring sequences around swimming pools and ponds, easy locales for males to admire each other’s bodies, or demonstrating how cracking an egg can be a sexual metaphor, or making a boring slideshow about naked Hellenistic male statues into a moment of desire. Ivory and Guadagnino also demonstrate the connection between fruit and sex. Back in antiquity, fruit was often used as a precursor and tool for sex, as it’s sugary and sticky substances are a play on bodily fluid. Apricots and apricot tress, as a refreshing drink, a substance to be drizzled over a body, or as a meeting place for unrequited trists are central to the film.
If there is one major flaw to Call Me By Your Name, it’s mostly its treatment of female characters. The women are at the behest of their male counterparts. Elio and Oliver both use up women for their sexual needs and then throw them away. In fact, one woman even apologizes to Elio, though Elio has been having an illicit relationship with Oliver behind her back and took away her virginity. That’s a major letdown for a film about judgement free safe zones.
Nevertheless, Call Me By Your Name survives because of poignant screenwriting, keen directing, and tender acting. These wistful performances aren’t just shared by Hammer and Chalamet, but by Stuhlbarg too. His painful and emotional lesson to his son is at once filled with truths of life, self confessions, and regrets. It’s a reminder of the fleeting allure of our bodies, the limited terms to life, and that love makes us give away those secret portions of ourselves, even when we least suspect it.
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Photo Credit: FilmSchoolRejects