We may look back one day on how this film marked a turning point in how gay sexuality is treated in American film. I can imagine heated debates about how it served as a “lightening rod” for those with extreme positions on the subject, and drew condemnation from the religious right. But none of that will matter. As directed by Luca Guadagnino, from a screenplay by James Ivory, the film is about seduction, pure and simple. The story shows a seventeen year old boy, a virgin, and an experienced twenty-four year old man falling in love with each other, and becoming lovers. Their seduction, therefore, is mutual; the difference in their ages and experience notwithstanding. But the real seduction is of us, the audience, by the filmmakers. And I, as a member of the audience, offered no resistance whatsoever. In other words, I ate it up and wanted more.
Their technique can be called “sensual overload”, and it’s remarkable how little difference sexual preference makes when it works. The story is set in 1983, when AIDS was too little known to cause the panic it later did. We are plunged almost immediately into a scene of transporting pleasure. Professor Perlman, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, an American, is an antiquities scholar living in northern Italy at a country villa which his Italian wife had inherited. Their son, Elio, played by Timothy Chalamet, is seventeen. No billionaire with yachts could have bought a more edenic lifestyle, at any price, than what Perlman has. And at a professor’s salary! Elio seems to know nothing of life but continuous, unsullied delight: sparkling streams for swimming, fruit and olives from trees on their property, gorgeous biking trails in the northern hills, fresh, sumptuous meals prepared by the family cook, visits from disciples and artists from all over the world, the respect of the townspeople for his father, the renowned scholar (even though he is Jewish), and, most delightfully, the adoration of the village girls, all of whom want to be his girlfriend. Although still a virgin, Elio knows that he has his choice of them whenever he feels ready for it. His parents merely observe in amusement.
Every year, the family hosts a visiting antiquities intern from the university. None, however, have even come close to causing the kind of stir raised by Oliver. In an iconographic performance by Armie Hammer, Oliver seems to effortlessly dominate every social event, every family meal, every volleyball game, every conversation by his incredibly relaxed, cultivated manner and scintillating wit. But his physical presence could have been enough anyway. Tall and Apollonian, he devastates the local romantic scene. The daily gathering of nubile Italian virgins, hitherto waiting patiently to be deflowered by Elio, are totally unprepared for Oliver, their seductive powers suddenly paralyzed. First of all, their erotic fantasies go skyrocket-crazy at the mere sight of him. And who can blame them. Suddenly, instead of being the object of their desire, Elio becomes their rival for Oliver’s attention. Oh, they try, but we know it’s hopeless once Oliver hears the boy play Bach on his guitar. The man is incurably smitten. Similarly aroused, Elio resists at first, feigning offense at Oliver’s self-assurance as arrogance. But we can plainly see, as can his mother and father, that Elio is really struggling with his own sexual awakening, and especially with the feelings that he is not supposed to be having.
Guadagnino’s direction is fine-tuned to cast a glow of idealized romance, which can be risky if it falls short. But he succeeds because it is based on characters so believable that we can almost smell the sweat on their skin. Overall, however, the film’s singular triumph is Chalamet’s performance, even as against the dazzle of Armie Hammer. Chalamet may have even created an entirely new template for teenage behavior: awkward nonchalance. Especially fine is the scene of the seduction of Marzia, Elio’s girlfriend. Chalamet plays it as a desperate, and futile, attempt to avoid Elio’s subsequent submission to Oliver – or perhaps to prepare himself for it – and is, in a word that is not ridiculous in this case, even for an actor who is only twenty-two years old, masterful; a precarious balance of studied aloofness and pubertal urgency. The scene is barely outshone by the already celebrated – and brilliantly imagined – scene where Oliver and Elio stand on opposite sides of a town monument to finally confess their passion.
But this doesn’t happen until the second hour of the movie, which doesn’t leave much time for the lovers to enjoy each other. Elio’s sexual awakening is clearly intended to nest comfortably within an “R” rating, and the lovers’ joy is mostly shown with laughter or adoring glances while they are hiking, fully clothed, or swimming. In fact, there’s almost something quaint about these scenes, recalling Hollywood’s strained attempts to suggest post-coital ecstasy after the imposition of the production code in 1932.
To the filmmakers’ credit, the glow, tinged with sadness, is of mixed colors. We know Oliver will leave at the end of his internship, and the sadness attendant upon this fact is artfully reflected in pacing and mood until the end of the film…with one spectacular interruption.
Although relegated to the background for most of the film – more of a prop, in fact, than a real character – Michael Stuhlbarg is given a speech in the next-to-last scene that made my jaw drop. I defy film scholars to show me any “father-and-son” talk that is even remotely like it. It’s a mind-blower!
I recognize two antecedents for the film, both in technique and subject matter. One is Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart”, from 1971. It tells of how a beautiful adult woman educates a virginal teenage boy in the delights of the female body, and of how he should make love to a woman. The fact that the female body she uses is her own, and the teenage boy is her son was not expected to be a problem for a sophisticated audience, and the film’s success proved it wasn’t. I know that I was transported into delight for weeks afterwards, and that Lea Massari is now immortalized as a symbol of, to some, a healthy female sexuality.
For sensuality of a different kind, the antecedent was “A Room With A View”, from 1986, which James Ivory, the screenwriter of this film, directed. There the senses are caressed with images of the gorgeous Italian countryside, and its natural beauties. While the eroticism is draped in Victorian discretion, the throb of sexuality beats continuously, and is irresistable. “Call Me” uses the same memes to the same effect, to a power of ten. It’s a wonder that a country bursting with such free, natural and sensual inducements for unrestrained sex should have the lowest birth rate in Europe.
Despite the splendors of Italy, the dominant sensibility of the film, at least with regard to sex, is French, recalling the Louis Malle film. Experience is the best teacher, the popular myth goes, and nothing will better prepare the young for a lifetime of sexual pleasure than the guidance of an experienced lover. No doubt Colette and de Maupassant would have approved.
To be blunt, “Call Me By Your Name” is the ultimate bourgeois wet dream. Whatever your preference, you’ll be groping for a sex partner as soon as you leave the theater. Or before. Just be careful – and safe – out there.