The Big Deal About Call Me by Your Name (2017) is That It Isn’t a Big Deal at All

While I wasn’t quite as knocked on my ass by the Academy Award-nominee Call Me by Your Name as Britnee seemed to be in her review, I do share in her appreciation of its merits as an intoxicating sensory experience. She writes, “I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of the music in the film was phenomenal.” Like with Luca Guadagnino’s previous directorial effort A Bigger Splash, this is a film that often compensates for its most glaring narrative shortcomings by simply shining as a gorgeous object, a portrait of life “somewhere in Northern Italy” that appeals to all five of the senses. I can’t recall a work of art that’s served as a better advertisement for an Italian life of leisure since the wonderfully-penned Gabrielle Hamilton memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter. I wasn’t 100% convinced by the passion shared between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) & Oliver (Armie Hammer) in this gorgeous backdrop the way Britnee was, but in a way, the soft, casual edge to their summertime romance is a huge part of the film’s appeal. Much like the ease of drinking fresh-squeezed juice, going for a swim on a whim, or plucking a book to read from the endless towers of them stacked about the open-windowed house, the same-sex romantic tryst at the center of Call Me by Your Name is a casual indulgence in an ancient pleasure. The only air of tragedy to their extended hook-up in this sun-drenched Eden is that it’s doomed to be temporary. That casual approach to same-sex romance & sensuality is extremely rare in cinema’s coming of age narratives about queer self-discovery, especially the ones set in the AIDS-paranoid, legally malevolent days of the early 1980s. It’s wonderful to see that the Big Deal about Call Me by Your Name isn’t made to be a big deal at all.

Something that caught my eye in Britnee’s review was that she made a point to note that Elio confesses his desire to (the older, more confident) Oliver “without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual.” This may be a result of the film’s less identity politics-obsessed 1983 setting, but it’s very much important to its overall appeal. I’ve been taken aback by a few critical takes on the film that posit Elio & Oliver as closeted homosexual men, when my experience with their shared arc was explicitly framed as a bisexual awakening. In a typical cinematic version of this story, these two young men would only be flirting & sleeping with women as a cover for their true passion, a dangerous romance that would inevitably end in tragedy (think of titles like Brokeback Mountain or When Boys Cry for context). Here I never question that the leads enjoy sleeping with women any more than I question them enjoying fresh fruit or afternoon swims. Their own connection may be more passionately intense & more of a social taboo (due to their significant age gap just as much as their shared gender), but that feels like it has more to do with their mutual compatibility than any external factors. A more convincing case could be made that Elio’s academic father (the consistently magnificent Michel Stuhlbarg) is a closeted homosexual man, but his hints about his own sexual orientation are left ambiguous at best. The most you can surmise from the fatherly advice carefully doled out throughout the film is that he believes what Elio & Oliver have is a rare, beautiful thing. Again, I don’t buy that the summertime fling the two leads share is as rare or as special as it’s ultimately framed to be, but I do find a lot to admire in this mode of subtle parental encouragement. In a more typical work, Elio’s parents would have found out about their tryst and made a huge dramatic gesture out of shutting it down. Instead, they quietly allow it to blossom & wither in its own time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (which it kind of is).

The exchange that best solidifies the connection between the ease of Oliver & Elio’s romance and the general idyllic ease of a life on a Northern Italian villa is the one involving The Peach. Between his bored, restless indulgences in reading, drinking, swimming, sleeping, playing music, and having sex (what a life!), Elio often finds himself alone & sexually frustrated in the few private spaces he can find in his parents’ expansive summer home. In the most pivotal of these moments, he finds himself masturbating into a fresh peach, only to awake embarrassed when Oliver discovers him sleeping next to the evidence. To Elio’s horror, Oliver licks & threatens to eat the defiled, oozing peach. It’s a jarring exchange, but one that’s played as casually as the glazed petit four scene in Toni Erdmann, rather than for the shock value humor of similar scenes in Wetlands, Pink Flamingos, or American Pie. Elio is too embarrassed & ashamed to see it, but Oliver’s instinct to Eat The Peach in that scene is a natural extension of the indulgent, leisurely life they’ve been living all summer. Oliver is an overconfident, lumbering bro with a voracious appetite for Experience. The way he downs whole glasses of juice, dances with wild abandon, and smashes into even the daintiest of breakfasts is almost beastly, but it’s an appetite for life that makes the most out of the many sensory pleasures that enrich the Northern Italy countryside. Elio could use some of that unearned confidence himself, which is why it’s wonderful to see him indulge in more pleasures outside the shade of his bedroom as the film progresses. Eating The Peach is such a great summation of the careful, delicate hedonism of the summer the two young men share together over the course of the film. It’s kind of a shame the movie ultimately chickens out on fully depicting it (which I understand was not the case in the André Aciman source material).

Not everything in Call Me by Your Name worked for me. The Oscar-nominated Sufjan Stevens songs were more of a distraction than an enhancement. For all the film’s confident comfort in bisexuality, I found it a little odd that its onscreen nudity was all boobs and no peen. Less superficially, I never fully bought into the once-in-a-lifetime significance of the central romance, nor into Oliver’s transformation from “impolite, arrogant” bro to sensitive soul. Again, though, Guadagnino’s eye for gorgeous, natural imagery and all-encompassing sensory pleasures more than compensate for any narrative missteps (the intensely-lit Psychedelic Furs dance sequence was the most I’ve been excited for his upcoming Suspiria remake to date). Overall, this is a tenderly beautiful & surprisingly humorous delight. Speaking more culturally than personally, I believe the film’s greatest achievement is in not pushing to be more than that. It’s so encouraging to see between films like Call Me by Your Name & Princess Cyd that there are bisexual coming of age stories finally being told onscreen where the awakening & the romance are The Big Deal instead of the sexuality itself. There’s too many kinds of queer stories yet to be told onscreen for every major non-hetero release to be a coming-out misery narrative, as feels like has been the case for decades. Elio & Oliver believe their summertime romance to be a bombshell secret, a fear contextually informed by the film’s early 80s temporal setting, but nearly everyone around them perceives what they’re up to and does nothing to obstruct it with disapproval. The movie is ultimately casual & delicate in its depiction of an extended same sex hook-up, leaving only a young man’s broken heart behind in its inevitable conclusion (a wound that always heals with time, no matter how traumatic it feels in the moment). Elio & Oliver’s brief, passionate fling is presented as just one Northern Italy delight among many, no different than a good book, an afternoon swim, or a freshly squeezed glass of juice. The only way for that messaging to be clearer would be for Oliver to Eat The Peach and shrug at the camera, but I suppose that would have been making a Big Deal out of nothing at all.

-Brandon Ledet

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