Call Me By Your Name
Call Me by Your Name is about an American Italian boy named Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet. It’s 1983 and his family is living in Northern Italy when an American named Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, comes and stays with them to intern with Elio’s father. The first thing Elliot says when he sees Oliver is he looks confident. And indeed Armie Hammer plays Oliver as brash, and honest, and self-aware.
Oliver is 10 years older than Elio and has the bearing and confidence of a man who has had the time to discover who he is. And maybe that’s the thing that begins to attract Elio to him, at least in the beginning, is Elio seeing in Oliver many of the ways that he wishes to be, an inevitable aspect to adolescent love and self-discovery. Both actors give nuanced performances.
It would be difficult to describe the plot from there because this movie unfolds in an unusual fashion. Essentially there is a third character, and that is the languishing Italian summer. Long warm afternoons with the smells of grass and the orchard wafting in through the many open windows. Swimming for the third time that day. And the movie sometimes takes that same identity. Scenes don’t always have connective tissue between them but instead lapse by like the long minutes of a summer day with nothing to do but savor the warmth.
The characters seem as unhurried as the day does, and I think your ability to enjoy the movie will be directly proportional to your willingness to just be another guest in Elio’s home, as you watch him work up the courage to say how he feels to Oliver. I found the whole experience beautifully soothing. This is a movie (story) that doesn’t set out in any particular narrative direction but instead discovers itself as the characters do, with every passing day. 101 The wonderful emotional music by Sufjan (so of-yan) Stevens gives the movie a sense that something is happening for these characters that aren’t yet totally expressed onscreen.
Though tangentially I started to wonder at the wealth of Ellio’s family, as I watched them all swimming away another afternoon or laying out in the sunshine. Don’t these people have jobs? It occurred to me then how much the movie is like a love letter to 19th-century romanticism. An artistic and intellectual movement of the most wealthy that sprung up as a counter to rationalism and the industrial revolution – emphasizing emotion over reason and very focused on the beauty of nature, often bodies of water and waterfalls.
When Elio finally expresses himself to Oliver, the scene occurs through the use of an more on, in a shot that stretches out for minutes. And even then Elio can’t succinctly state how he feels outright. In fact, his meaning is communicated in the words he can’t bring himself to say. And there is as much told in the blocking of the shot as anything else, as Elio and Oliver speak from opposite sides of a fence. 201 And then their dynamic switches. Oliver is resistant and the movie roots Oliver’s resistance in his religion – as he says after kissing Ellio that this is where they must stop since they haven’t done anything yet to be ashamed of.
I think religion here, works as shorthand for something I imagine is a far more complex challenge for people in their position – but if the movie had had to explain how s*xually progressive Italy was or was not in 1983 it would have certainly bogged down the material. Elio’s and Oliver’s story of first love plays out in a familiar fashion, while never feeling cliche. First love is a fingerprint, something common and familiar to all of us but specific and unique to each of us. And the movie never lets their journey take a turn that would be out of bounds for either of their characters. As the movie went on, I found myself growing tenser and I started wondering why. Towards the end, Oliver and Ellio were wandering an Italian alleyway at night, a little drunk and finally letting some of their love be seen in public.
They come upon a trio of people smoking and dressed in dark clothing. And I felt sure something bad was about to happen. That’s when I understood. Art can be powerful cultural activism, and an inherent aspect of activism is showing people ugly things that they had previously looked away from. And change is slow. It occurred to me, that I had been waiting for the whole movie for events that have become a cliche to mainstream stories of same-se* relationships. A murder. A sickness. A monstrous parent. An act of violence. But Ellio’s journey of se*ual self-discovery is treated as healthy and normal.
Though it seemed like there might’ve been a price to pay for normality. The movie feels a bit dese*ed at certain important moments, where the camera looks shyly out the window while we are here certain goings-on. Earlier it hadn’t looked away from hetero se*. But still, I think, paradoxically, the most powerful activist aspect to Call Me By Your Name is that there isn’t one. The medium is the message. This not a story was written around a lesson. Instead, the movie is a simple clear photograph of two people, and a long Italian summer where love is love.