Call Me By Your Name: romantic gay repression in the scenic Italian countryside - Drew Rowsome - Moving Pictures - MyGayToronto
Call Me By Your Name: romantic gay repression in the scenic Italian countryside
REVIEW by Drew Rowsome
22 December 2017
Is it because they're gay or because they're ridiculous?
While 17-year-old Elios (Timothee Chalamet) is in hot pursuit of his father's research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer), the family is visited by a gay couple whose only crime is being older and perhaps a bit fey. Elios refers to them as "Sonny and Cher" and his father rebukes him. Oliver simply avoids them. Too bad because, despite their brief appearance, they are the two most intriguing characters in the film.
Elios is a horny boy who in the course of the summer depicted, also has sex with a neighbourhood girl and a peach. But it is Oliver he loves. Why he cares for Oliver more than the peach is unexplained—Hammer's chest hair is more luxurious than the peach fuzz?—as while Oliver has a pretty boy physical appeal, he is also arrogant and an annoying American who would be satirized brutally in any other aspiring-to-art film. But as their courtship/foreplay seems to be the raison d'etre of Call Me By Your Name, and Chalamet's eyes are so expressive and full of longing, the misplaced desire seems plausible.
Gay desire is what Call Me By Your Name gets just right: the furtive looks, touches, feints and flinches, the attempts to figure out if one is desired in return. The fumbling attempts to connect will be familiar to anyone who has been introduced to an attractive stranger and then has struggled to subtly test the chemistry within scaring them off or becoming a victim of gay panic. And the two leads are filmed almost as lovingly as the Italian countryside, though I could have done with a lot less travelogue and much more beefcake.
Set in the '80s—established by The Psychedelic Furs and a Robert Mapplethorpe print—the big question hanging over Call Me By Your Name is just why the star-crossed lovers are star-crossed. All of the characters, except for the nameless servants who mainly just shake their heads in exasperation and/or cook (it is Italy), are intellectuals who quote philosophers, artists and literature while being determinedly bohemian. And then of course it turns out that the fear is all in Oliver's head, Elios' parents knew all along and tacitly approved.
The father, Michael Stuhlbarg, even gives a heartfelt speech about following one's heart. Unfortunately the speech is written in the same stop and start Beckett/Wiseau language that James Ivory uses to indicate repression. There is an early exchange that consists almost entirely of repeated variations on "Are you saying what I think you are saying?" (spoiler alert: we never find out) and "We can't talk about those kinds of things" (spoiler alert: they never do). The point seems to be that despite being able to expound on art and philosophy, talking about or experiencing emotions is beyond the characters (perhaps that explains the pointed Bunuel reference).
There is still great joy in seeing a gay romance depicted on screen, the cinematography (except for shaky pans and two inexplicable arty effects) is sumptuous, and Chalamet is a real find. The actor is all coltish gangly jailbait (another year or two and a few trips to the gym, and he would fit perfectly in a Bel Ami twink epic) with a face and eyes that can express multiple emotions at the same time. As if to remind us that the film belongs to him, the final image is a prolonged close-up of his face as he wordlessly navigates a Shakespearean monologue. It is not just powerful but it is blatant Oscar bait.
That image is either marred or enhanced by a fly that alights on his sweater and crawls. Twice, earlier in the film, Chalamet has been almost upstaged by a fly that he brushed away repeatedly. It appears to be a metaphor (I had hoped it meant he was now a zombie and that he would begin killing but, no luck) much like the one involving water. The flirtations all revolve around a pool, the ocean, a secret pond and getting wet. When they finally consummate their love/lust and escape away together, it is to a hillside studded with pounding crashing waterfalls. Subtle Call Me By Your Name is not.
It is progress that Call Me By Your Name is aimed at a mainstream market but, like Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight (both of which it resembles and cribs from), it doesn't celebrate or explore gay, it just buries it in artiness, endless scenic shots, and ponderous preciousness that reduces gay sexuality to a plot point and titillation. I have no doubts that director Luca Guadagnino et al meant well and took the project very seriously with all the attendant political sensitivity (Hammer in particular has been great in press interviews at shooting down the "was it scary to play gay?" questions and has actually had fun discussing the peach scene and his apparently prodigious testicles) and I hope they are rewarded with a big hit and even more awards. But I am still hoping for a scrappy, lusty, realistic gay relationship to play out on the big screen and be more entertaining.