setting a new standard in lgbt+ cinema
call me by your name
Following a string of nominations and critical acclaim at various film festivals worldwide, it already garnered a strong fanbase before being released. Call Me By Your Name is Nominated for three Oscars.
Having seen the hype online, I thought I had a rough idea of what to expect. The latest gay romance in which a teen explores his burgeoning sexuality, I could only hope that there would not be too much bullying from peers or disapproving parents. But Call Me By Your Name has been made from a different mould entirely; what we got was a new kind of film that explores same sex love without the negativity that often surrounds it onscreen.
Set in 1983, it’s a coming of age tale set during six long weeks of summer on the Italian Riviera. Focussing on the romance between 17-year-old Elio and American postgraduate student Oliver, they simultaneously crave the intimacy the other offers whilst being scared of it and what it means for them. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer do incredible jobs as Elio and Oliver respectively; the passion and vulnerability they portray demonstrates their talent. Chalamet in particular is one to watch, having already won the ‘Breakout Performance Actor Award’ at 2017 Hollywood Film Awards for his role and tipped to be a favourite for the Oscars. I can only hope that Call Me By Your Name enjoys similar success to last year’s Moonlight.
Call Me By Your Name does a good job of normalising Elio’s feelings and portraying them as universal. Most will be able to identify with him; as a teenager experiencing his first love, his longing glances at his crush, the jealousy of watching him dance and kiss someone else and the listless boredom when they are apart are all highly relatable, no matter your orientation. The chemistry between the boys is unmistakable, and any scene that Chalamet and Hammer appear in alone is charged with sexual tension. Its 15-age restriction is well deserved through its frank and open depiction of Oliver and Elio discovering the physical aspect of their relationship. It doesn’t shy away from the gritty but also mundane details – for instance, after they sleep together for the first time, Oliver sits up and wipes away the semen on his chest with the shirt from his bedroom floor. It’s little moments like this that contributes to the incredible realism of the film. It’s easy to believe that Elio and Oliver are here in the real world.
One of the most welcoming changes from other LGBTQ films is the unwavering, unintrusive support from Elio’s parents. Instead of confronting Elio or asking questions, they gently remind him “you know you can speak to us” and actively encourage the boys to spend time together. Elio’s father schools him when he refers to his parents’ gay friends as ‘Sonny and Cher’, admonishing him that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Their patience and the way that they let Elio come to them when he’s ready is something that many parents could take note of.
Of course, not everything goes perfectly for the two boys. Painfully aware of the limited time they have together – that Oliver is only staying for six weeks is referenced several times throughout the film – adds an intensity to their feelings. At one point, Elio becomes emotional and asks, ‘I’m sick, aren’t I?’. Oliver’s response, ‘we haven’t done anything to be ashamed of’ is something that many LGTBQ youth need to hear.
The film also does an excellent job of presenting the characters as well-rounded, 3D people. The complexity of Elio is unmistakable: he is ‘Jewish but also English, American, Italian…’ revealing how no person can fit in one box but simultaneously shifts between multiple identities. Just as being part-Italian or Jewish is part of Elio, so too is his sexuality just one more part that makes up his complex identity, rather than being reduced to just that.
The theme of finding identity is beautifully explored through the simple symbol of the star of David necklace that Elio and Oliver wear. Their shared religion is one of the first things that they bond over – another welcome change, as religion is normally depicted as a homophobic force of oppression. When Oliver asks Elio why he doesn’t wear his star of David, Elio jokes that his family are ‘Jews of discretion’. However, he does start wearing the symbol around his neck after he shares his first kiss with Oliver. Whilst this could be one way for him to feel closer to Oliver, it also represents how he is becoming more comfortable with different parts of his identity, and is not willing to remain hidden any longer.
One the most striking things that sets Call Me By You Name apart from other LGBTQ films is how rooted it is in what I would refer to as the ‘gay literary canon’. Rich with references from queer texts throughout the centuries, parts of the film almost felt like a love letter to LGBTQ history. Oliver embodies the ideal of the Walt Whitman American boy: full of life, confident, sensual, attractive. The amount of time they spend out in nature, swimming together and enjoying the countryside, could be taken directly from Leaves of Grass. The only times that Elio and Oliver can explore their relationship is when they are away from the family and local community – they share their first kiss in the middle of the countryside, and when they go on a trip together the first scenes are them enjoying nature, surrounded by waterfalls and greenery. Elio’s father declares that the relationship between Elio and Oliver “had everything and nothing to do with intelligence,” a reference to the ancient Greek practise of pederasty that Oscar Wilde attempted to use as his defence in his trials.
But, perhaps deeper than that, is the frequent references to speaking. When Elio first dares to hint that he has feelings for Oliver, Oliver tries to get away from the discussion by saying, “we can’t talk about these things” – a throwback to Lord Alfred Douglas’ famous line ‘the love that dare not speak it’s name’. One of the questions pondered in the film, “is it better to speak or to die?” is an interesting conundrum when, throughout history, to speak is to die for members of the LGBTQ community. Being open about our feelings has often, even in modern media portrayals, led to rejection and fear. What is so beautiful about Call Me By You Name is that it’s moved on from daring not to speak the name of their love to naming their lover their own name, suggesting that it's not just each other they have grown to love but themselves.
The stand-out of the film is the poignant scene between Elio and his father towards the end. What seems at the start to be a heart-warming acceptance of a father for his son has an unexpected twist. Possibly the most bittersweet scene I’ve ever watched, it’s the father that admits he ‘came close to having what you had, but something held me back.’ This astonishing confession completely turns what would be yet another son-coming-out scene on its head. It’s still rare enough for a parent to come out that this feels like a big moment in cinema. The whole scene is beautiful, from the dialogue to the acting to the bond between father and son, and one that will linger with the audience for a long time.
Despite its many positives, there is still not a happy ending for our characters. Instead of being the epic gay romance the film seemed to promise, their love was portrayed as something temporary and unable to last. This is established early on in the film, with Elio watching Oliver from a balcony, evoking the Romeo and Juliet ideal of being doomed to only a fleeting romance. It is also irksome that Elio is 17 years old – the fact that he is legally a child, is something that will undoubtedly be used to criticise the film and LGBTQ relationships in general. The shock reveal that Oliver is getting married at the end reinforces the idea that his feelings for Elio couldn’t transgress the summer fling mentality; now he’s back home in the real world, it’s time for him to have a ‘real’ relationship, by marrying a woman. However, saying that, although his father and Oliver are in marriages that are not truly what they want, there is a sense of hope for Elio. His parents know about the relationship and support him unconditionally; he has undoubtedly grown more confident from his encounter with Oliver, and although we see his heartbreak at the end, he is only young – there’s plenty of time for him to meet someone.
Overall, Call Me By Your Name is one of those rare films where everything – the stunning original soundtrack by Sufjan Stevens, the cinematography, the locations, the symbolism, and of course the acting – comes together beautifully to create a truly unique experience. In a cheeky meta reference, one of the lines of dialogue claims, ‘cinema is a mirror to reality’ – and the film excellently represents a very realistic relationship between two boys. Watch it with your partner; watch it with your friends; watch it with your parents. Just watch it.