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‘Call Me by Your Name’ Is a Gay Love Story, Minus the Self-Torture

Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous film captures the ephemeral joy of a summer romance, but what’s beneath the surface leaves a more lasting impression

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

Shall we start with the peach? Somewhere in Northern Italy, on a sun-drenched summer afternoon in 1983, a 17-year-old American Italian boy named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a peach at his side. This has been a season of self-discovery for Elio. His father, an archaeologist who studies ancient sculpture, has once again taken on a graduate student for the summer to help him catalog his findings. This year, that student is a tall 24-year-old American man named Oliver (Armie Hammer), a statuesque discovery in his own right. Oliver and Elio have lately become entangled in a romance—or something like that. Elio, who has a girlfriend, is still figuring himself out. What he knows is that, thanks to Oliver, something in him has been awakened. And what he knows, at this very moment, is that he wants to fuck a peach.

Even then, maybe “knows” is overstating it. Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous, boyishly intellectual new romantic film, is the kind of movie to let a discovery like this play out at the natural pace of his characters’ curiosity. Anyone who’s read or even heard about the 2007 André Aciman novel, the modern gay classic on which the movie is based, will see the peach and immediately know what’s coming: Elio absentmindedly digging at the peach’s flesh, carving a hole into it with his fingers before removing the pits, sticking his fingers inside, and getting an idea. They know Oliver will catch him afterward—and they know what happens next. Still, Guadagnino lets this all unfold with characteristically sympathetic patience, even as, for Elio, it drifts briefly into self-loathing. “I’m sick, aren’t I?” says Elio. “I wish everyone was as sick as you,” says Oliver.

Call Me by Your Name tells the story of two people wrapped up in a painfully brief summer romance that starts, funnily enough, with them a little at odds. You get the sense, by the end, that they wish they’d had more time, that they wish they had discovered each other’s wants a little sooner. It’s almost improbable that they wouldn’t get along. Elio is a precocious young musician whose sense of humor amounts to playing Bach tunes in the style of other composers and seeing who’ll notice the difference—he’s a nerd. And a joy. As wonderfully fleshed out by Chalamet, Elio’s got a vibrant restlessness in him, a boldly unsuppressed curiosity that pushes him in the bookish Oliver’s direction. You could say Hammer, meanwhile, who’s 6-foot-5, blond, and royally handsome, is playing to type. He’s a little bit of a bro, but deceptively smart. When Elio’s father, played by the great Michael Stuhlbarg, quizzes Oliver’s philology, he passes with flying colors.

Still, despite the rich opportunities for, if nothing else, intellectual attraction, their early interactions are a little awkward. Elio and Oliver spend much of the summer playfully antagonizing each other. Oliver, who wears a Star of David around his neck, has a laxness about him, a surfer attitude wearing khaki shorts and slickened hair, that Elio initially hates. Oliver doesn’t say goodbye when he exits a room: He shoots off from the dinner table with a quick, casual, “Later!” “Don’t you think he’s impolite with the way he says, ‘Later’?” Elio asks his parents. “Arrogant?”

Call Me by Your Name is suffused with a cosmopolitan sense of attraction that makes it feel like a throwback to Thomas Mann’s seminal Death in Venice, about a writer who falls for a beautiful youth, and other stories of the kind—minus the tragedy. These are characters who joke about Bach and read Heraclitus’s The Cosmic Fragments. They test each other intellectually before involving themselves physically. There’s a strain of gay fiction in line with this, one that contrasts the brutally singular life of the mind with the inner and outer lives of the flesh, studying the gap between who these characters are as logical, thinking subjects versus feeling, desiring ones. Even the academic work we see in Guadagnino's movie, the cataloguing and recovery of large, handsome, Athenian busts, feels erotically charged, as well as simply romantic in its own right: The bodies are beautiful. Where Aciman’s novel and Guadagnino’s film differ from tradition is in the lack of tragic self-torture. Elio has his internal ups and downs, but they’re boyish, not brutal. Call Me by Your Name’s sun-drenched, olive-hued intellectualism is a soft rebuke to the genre’s tendency toward unfulfillment. If there’s any self-torture here, it’s merely the hormonal confusion of an occasionally jealous teenager.

Much of this is delightful—but much of what’s here points to a richer, stranger set of discoveries than what Guadagnino openly explores in the movie. Sexually, it comes off a little muted. In Aciman’s novel, Elio’s curiosity verges on fetish—the peach being a memorable example. Our sense of the fearlessness of Chalamet’s performance, meanwhile, is in the small, odd moments—Elio sniffing Oliver’s underwear, or watching him pee, or practically licking his face—that come off as the actor fully taking on his character’s mishmash of new curiosities. But instead of exploring the Elio who’s got his face in the seat of Oliver’s boxers, Guadagnino gives room to the sad-faced, lovelorn Elio, who senses the approaching conclusion of summer and doesn’t want this moment to end. Multiple montages set to Sufjan Stevens songs more or less tell you where Guadagnino’s heart is: They reveal the predilections of a director who’s a little more boring than his own material. Guadagnino has fashioned this into an outright love story. It’s possible that what’s really here is something a little more exciting, even dangerous.

Strangely, by the end, I had become less interested in Elio and Oliver than in the time and place and, most especially, the parents whose generous wisdom allowed this love to flourish. The joy of this movie for me isn’t in watching Elio and Oliver navigate their emotional whims, it’s in watching Elio’s parents notice and silently face, and support, those whims from the sideline. Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar, who plays Elio’s mother, carry a lot of wisdom in their glances—and even more in their silence.

Perhaps Elio’s parents interest me more than Elio because they’re the ones whose desires go unexpressed. It’s a reversal of our expectations: The gay characters aren’t the ones whose feelings are reduced to knowing looks and reading between the lines. Elio’s parents’ are. His self-understanding is abundant and open; their understanding of their son, meanwhile, becomes a quiet code that sets a loving, compassionate tone for the entire movie. If, by the end, I find myself curious about the man Elio will grow to become, it’s because of who his parents encourage him to be. Call Me by Your Name makes you remember how it felt to realize, as you became an adult, that your best experiences are ephemeral—that by the time you recognize an experience for what it is, it’s already a memory. Like his parents, you want Elio to cherish this moment. And thanks to Guadagnino, we, at least, can live that moment as a movie.