Queer Classics: The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

Warning. Spoilers for the film follow.

Call Me By Your Name opens with a series of snapshots of statues from antiquity, emblems of beauty, desire, and a world lost to the vicissitudes of time. About midway through the film, the main character Elio’s father refers to these statues, arguing that they dare us to desire, their faintly contorted forms contending with the perils of physicality.

In a similar way, Call Me By Your Name dares us to desire, to give ourselves up to the complicated, messy, infuriating yet delicious confusion of lust, love, and longing.

Set in the early 1980s in the north of Italy, the film follows young 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student, as they contend with their burgeoning feelings for one another. Their friendship blossoms into an intense physical and emotional connection, before Oliver must return to the United States, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind.

In some ways, the film’s narrative reminds me more than a little of the tragic romance between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the youth Antinoös. It’s more than just the age difference–though that’s part of it. It’s about the aching beauty of youth, about the awareness that the passion that begins any relationship is doomed to cool in the fires of time. If you’ve ever read the heart-wrenching Memoirs of Hadrian, you’ll know what I mean.

The performances are…exquisite. There’s really no other word for it. Hammer has that sort of effortless male handsomeness that one associates with classic Hollywood, but it is his effortlessly masculine voice that truly stirs the loins. There’s just something deeply erotic about the richness of it, a deep purr that also reminds me of the best voices of classic Hollywood actors (I’m thinking in particular of Gregory Peck). I will say, though, that his character Oliver remains something of an enigma. We don’t really get to know him in the same way Elio,

For his part, Timothée Chalamet shines as Elio. He possesses the same sort of elusive beauty as the statues that his father so lovingly excavates. Several times, the camera catches him in profile, and I couldn’t help but notice that he bore a striking resemblance to those same ancient statues. Maybe it’s the turn of the nose, or perhaps it’s just the slightly elfin cast to his features. I’m not quite sure.

And, also like those statues, Chalamet manages to convey the gangly, tormented physicality of a teenage boy in hopeless love. There’s a certain anguish that Chalamet captures, both in his simultaneously graceful and awkward physical comportment as well as his ability to convey Elio’s uncertainty about his feelings for the golden-haired Oliver. The first half of the film sees the two of them existing in an uneasy tension, neither quite able to express openly the way they clearly feel about one another.

When they finally do consummate their affection, the camera is rather shy, not showing the details but leaving us in no doubt as to what is happening. In keeping the lovemaking away from the gaze, the film dares us to experience the erotic without the messy trappings of the prurient. The physically intimate relationship the two clearly share is conveyed in other, arguably more meaningful ways: through a gentle touch of a leg, the touching of one foot upon the other, a tender yet passionate kiss.

But, just as the statues of antiquity, for all their beauty, remain fragmented, beaten down and broken apart by the vicissitudes of time, so the romance between Elio and Oliver must contend with the fact that it will always be limited by their time together. Theirs is a connection doomed to flower and then instantly begin to fade, mirroring the exquisite fruits that so often appear on the table.

And that, to me, seems to be the film’s central interest. For as much as Elio is in the midst of his beautiful youth and as profound as this relationship with Oliver has been, time will inevitably wear away the hard edges of it. That romance, like all things, will fall victim to the vicissitudes of memory. And, for the film, it also falls victim to Oliver, who eventually departs, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind in Italy. When he calls his mother and asks her to come and get him, the heartbreak feels real and even now, a few days after I’ve seen the film, I still feel that gut-punch of the end of a romance.

Fortunately for Elio, his father (played by a scene-stealing Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man of infinite wit and wisdom. In a heart-warming (and wrenching) talk with his son, he reminds him that he shouldn’t crush the part of him that was hurt, in the hope that it will keep the pain away. Instead, he should remember the beautiful bond that he had with Oliver, recognizing that feeling is an essential part of what makes us human and what gives life its peculiar savor.

The film, like the ancient statuary with which it begins, attempts to capture an elusive, transient moment of summer. But of course, cinematic time waits for no one, and for all of the camera’s loving, lingering attention to the pleasures of the fleshly instant, it inevitably moves us forward. The summers of our life cannot be held, much as we might wish it were otherwise, and it is precisely because they are so transient that they pierce us with their intensity. We mourn the passing, even as we are in the midst of it. Call Me, more than perhaps any other film that I’ve recently seen, captures the fleeting nature of desire.

Call Me By Your Name is one of those extraordinary stories of queer love that stays with you. It’s not tragic, but it is bittersweet, and in that sense it ably captures the contradictions at the heart of so much queer love. While we have come a long way in terms of the societal acceptance of same-sex love, there are still many more mysteries to the queer heart, many of which don’t even have a name.

And yet still they call to our hearts.

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