Luca Guadagnino builds a bildungsroman around privilege and repression in his new movie Call Me by Your Name screened at New York Film Festival.
However you feel about Armie Hammer, there’s no denying that he’s the closest thing Hollywood has right now to a Greek god. The zeitgeist now so much more focused on our Michael Ceras and Adam Drivers, making Luca Guadagnino’s job in making Call Me by Your Name – as an ode to the male physique – that much harder.
Hammer, at 6’5’’ with a chiseled chin, is the perfect fit to play Oliver, the object of desires in the film, not just because he is such a classical hunk but because of everything about the actor’s mannerisms and general look scream old money. It’s the reason his role as both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network (2010) went over better than his portrayal of The Lone Ranger in The Lone Ranger (2013).
In Call Me by Your Name, he is a young graduate student staying with his French-American professor’s family as they vacation in their Italian summer home. Hammer seems to want little out of the vacation besides eating fruit, sunbathing his pectorals, and occasionally helping the professor recover and catalog some gorgeous old Hellenistic statues of buff naked men – a task which is pursued lackadaisically but really works its way into the center of the film.
All of this is seen from the perspective of Elio (Timothée Chalamet) the son of Oliver’s professor who at first intends to buddy up to the young American, and then realizes he wants quite a lot more.
At seventeen, Elio is the only child on a sprawling villa “somewhere in Northern Italy” which includes an inexact amount of servants working to accommodate the family of three. Older, bigger, and with a repose of entitlement, Oliver is his sexual awakening and the realization of his sexuality.
Even for those of us in the audience who aren’t queer, this is reminiscent of so much about first love: the idea that what’s happening is both perfect and so unsustainably wrong.
Luxuriating in the summer sun, there’s little for Oliver and Elio to do but come together. Oliver’s attraction is never clearly voiced until he accepts the advances, and in general, there’s a rapport between them of masculine competition – racing bikes and jumping in freezing water – which is typical of adolescent men. Guadagnino turns these games into a more sensual play early on, and soon Elio has trouble matching Oliver’s nonchalance, what with his nearly-unbuttoned polo shirts, and 80’s era short shorts. The two travel through the countryside together and soon begin to acknowledge their romance in secret. Just how big of a deal it remains up in question for most of the film.
The film takes place in 1983, perhaps to access a period of the director’s own pubescence, but that also makes it the height of the AIDS pandemic – the moment when homosexuality was first being acknowledged and combatted. Robin Campillo took on the subject in Europe looking at Paris’ ACT UP chapter in his new film 120 BPM, also at NYFF this year, but Guadagnino’s story is far more insular, highlighting the deeply private side of the phenomenon as it stood in the twentieth century.
About halfway through the film, an American gay couple visits the professor’s family for dinner, as old friends. Oliver is away, but everyone else is welcoming to them except Elio, who refers to them in passing as “Sonny and Cher,” and doesn’t want to spend time with them. Even as he gets acceptance of his sexuality demonstrated by his parents, he resists the idea of himself as queer, a reminder that the pressure was often imposed arbitrarily on those coming out, and societal pressure could be felt even as far away as the idyllic countryside.
It may also come from Oliver, who, despite his eager acceptance of Elio’s advances and an implied past with other men, attaches the notion of shame and secrecy to their meetings. Elio accepts the concept and then struggles with it. Even for those of us in the audience who aren’t queer, this is reminiscent of so much about first love: the idea that what’s happening is both perfect and so unsustainably wrong.
I was interested most by the notion of privilege and status in Guadagnino’s film Call Me by Your Name, which does a strange dance in and out of entitlement. For some reason (perhaps again personal) the director chose to depict a solidly upper-class family as if their living conditions were totally average; no eyebrows raised about the servants working in their summer home.
Guadagnino works in a little praise to Buñuel (the legendary French director, who often castigated the bourgeoisie) as dinner table conversation, but aims to make no commentary of his own. The extreme wealth that affects these character’s daily lives is then offset by a number of factors. At one point, Elio tells Oliver he’s “the first Jew to set foot in this town besides my family;” Elio tries to hide his religion, and reference is made to the fascism the region faced a few decades earlier. Similarly, Oliver and Elio’s gay relationship comes at a time when this is deeply transgressive, making them outsiders in a community they should otherwise be at the top of.
Older, bigger, and with a repose of entitlement, Oliver is Elio’s sexual awakening, and the realization of his sexuality.
Why Guadagnino chose of emphasize some entitlements and totally ignore others is a question worth exploring, but it’s important just to notice how they contour Elio’s summer of love. As an expatriate Jew who’s spent every summer in the town, he is both on the outside and inside of the community. In his parent’s villa, everything feels both within reach and slightly restricted, an alienation that kept him shut in his room until Oliver comes and brings him out. That moment of access, of discovery, is the point of every coming-of-age and is the very marrow of Call Me by Your Name. It’s all about coming out and discovering the world around you.