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Utopia Achieved: Call Me by Your Name

Call Me 02

By Christopher Sharrett.

I’ve kept in mind Luca Guadagnino since his 2009 film I Am Love, which made such good use of both Visconti and Renoir while creating a work wholly Guadagnino’s own. I was less impressed with A Bigger Splash (2015), which seemed to me a work poorly thought-through (Tilda Swinton as a stadium-style rock star?) at various levels, with obnoxious set-pieces, like Ralph Fiennes hopping through a palatial house to a Rolling Stones song (not one of their best), used, bizarrely, in the film’s trailers. Call Me by Your Name affirms the director’s importance – if it does leave a few questions.

Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is a Jewish-American boy on summer vacation with his family in a beautiful chateau in Lombardy. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an art historian, pursuing research into Praxiteles, whose nude sculptures (or copies of them created at various points of antiquity) seem to come to him, washing up obligingly on the shore. The point is key. The film’s credits are seen against images of the sculptures, and the archetypal Grecian urn. The collage ultimately contains modern objects, including a typewriter. The glory of the distant past, with its spontaneous attitude (if we aren’t romanticizing) toward sex, is melded to the present. Praxiteles is regarded as the greatest sculptor of antiquity, whose focus was the idealized nude human form; he is reportedly the first to sculpt the female nude. So the balm of culture (including Bach and other composers – we hear Elio playing the piano) is significant to the narrative, reminding us what heals civilization. Culture is a discussion topic, making it alive and relevant – with some of the better elements of pop culture incorporated.

Call Me 05Prof. Perlman has hired another American, a graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer, whose charisma is revealed after disasters like The Lone Ranger, 2013, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., 2015) to assist him with his archeological finds. Like the father, Oliver is an accomplished scholar, able to offer quick lessons in etymology that make the professor smile.

Oliver and Elio, slowly, tentatively, begin an erotic relationship. Oliver might be seen an enabling (in the early sense of the word) “stranger” within the group, like Terence Stamp in Teorema (1968), although his presence is wholly benevolent. He wears a little Star of David on a thin chain; unlike the Perlmans, whose Jewishness is revealed when they think it appropriate, Oliver is proud of his heritage (he is an Adonis, tall, blonde, and handsome, who could easily “pass” in the gentile world, making his choice all the more courageous). The Perlman parents quickly become aware of the gay relationship between their son and Oliver, and are wholly accepting. This, like much else in the film, seems improbable; we are offered a vision of what might exist rather than what exists today. The point seems clear if we contrast the film’s images to the source novel by Andre Aciman, conceived as a memoir.

Oliver and Elio casually stroll about the enthralling Lombardy countryside in shorts, stopping in empty, sun-baked towns for knick-knacks, Elio giving Oliver lessons on local history as Oliver awakens Elio sexually. There is a sense of the antique towns, there for centuries, embracing the two. At some moments, images recall De Chirico, minus any metaphysical dread. The two swim in ancient stone pools, almost turning into the images being retrieved by the professor. Oliver is completely open to the human body; when Elio ejaculates into a peach, Oliver tastes his semen, making Elio cringe. The moment recalls a scene in The Doom Generation (1995), when Xavier shows his two partners that nothing about the body is “gross.” Indeed, Araki’s film is relevant to Guadagnino’s. Araki’s film is part of his “teenage apocalypse” cycle, while Guadagnino’s is the last installment of his Desire Trilogy (including the two films mentioned earlier – I can accept I Am Love, not the other). Araki can see no future for young people in current American civilization, while Guadagnino can posit one (if on another continent). There is another element connecting these films. Both films posit, Araki far more assertively than Guadagnino, that sexual revolt must be understood with a political-economic context. The violence that ends The Doom Generation takes place within the wittily articulated hellscape of post-industrial America, with evidence of decay in everything from convenience stores to ugly highways trimmed with big-box monopolies. Guadagnino locates his story in 1983, in the center of the terrible reaction of Reagan-Thatcher-Kohl, but as they play out their romance, the protagonists of Call Me by Your Name seem unaware of the problems in front of them. But then, Guadagnino creates a sealed world outside of time. There are allusions in the film (World War I) suggesting the narrative’s awareness of the struggles that are always present, but it turns away from them. There is one element of the time period that is palpable: it is still the age before cybernetics took over: no cell phones, no laptops, and the like. In other words, the world still allows peace of mind, and people get on quite well. The quiet of the moment is the first necessity of Guadagnino’s idea of utopia.

Call Me 04The total acceptance by the parents seems a bit much even given that they are intellectuals; they even encourage the two to take a weekend vacation together (isn’t everything in their world a vacation?). Michael Stuhlbarg’s professor is rather mealy-mouthed, making his consolations only moderately convincing, especially when he tells his son of his own gay liasons. Obviously the director wants to avoid a patriarchal figure, but a bit more assertiveness from the father would have made his moments more persuasive.

There is a female character named Marzia (Esther Garrel) who has a crush on Elio. They too have sex, but Oliver is uppermost in Elio’s mind. It is to the film’s credit that this utopia is bisexual, with Marzia brought back near the denouement rather that abandoned. Oliver returns to America, leaving Elio pining. Oliver is engaged to a woman, and Elio will perhaps marry Marzia, creating another problem within the narrative. The film ends in black-and-white winter, suggesting doomsday. But does it endorse the idea that the bisexual person must necessarily opt for bourgeois marriage and the family, making the gay relationship a distant memory?

Call Me 06The film assumes that money is unnecessary, or that we all have it. The Perlmans might rent rather than own their chateau; either way, costs are no object. The love affair takes place against the mise-en-scene of the voluptuous if disheveled house, recalling the director’s interest in the decadence of Visconti, although that director’s focus (in his late films) was on the decay of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. We also have the stereotypical servants who seem very content to be in the fringes. An old groundskeeper, complete with wheelbarrow and shovel, acts a little like a chorus in a few scenes, chuckling at the intellectual conversations of Oliver and the Perlmans, finally nodding at them approvingly.

Still, this film is a relief during the “holiday season” flood of cinematic effluvia. It merits close reading. It takes one’s mind off of Trump (for a moment), the Golden Globe Awards, Oprah for President, missiles flying across the pacific, wars raging everywhere, and everything else threatening to our minds and persons.

Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University.

4 Comments for “Utopia Achieved: Call Me by Your Name

  1. Excellent critique of the film, Christopher, with which I agree completely in every detail. I’m interested in the movie’s overwhelming current of nostalgia. When you write: “But does it endorse the idea that the bisexual person must necessarily opt for bourgeois marriage and the family, making the gay relationship a distant memory?” I am reminded of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and your very fine piece about that movie. Desire in these films, it seems to me — homosexual desire — is utopian and always nostalgic. (The visit of the gay couple in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is very interesting here. I think the father calls them “ridiculous,” and his description of them as “gay “ almost sounds like a put-down — as if homosexual desire can only be made “beautiful” if it is fleeting or doomed.)

    The film clearly — if unconsciously — is responding to the awfulness of our Trump-era present. The Perlman family is pretty much the opposite of everything represented by Donald Trump and his supporters. If one of the problems of the movie is its soft-centeredness — its lack of a proper villain — it is because the villain is outside the movie, in our historical, present moment. I think the film does try for some gravitas, by making the family (and Oliver) Jewish — after all, the destruction of Western culture — the best of its music and art and refinement of aesthetic sensibility — is no small thing. And they’re not just any Jews — they’re like (as I remember them) the Finzi-Continis in De Sica’s film. “Nous sommes tous des Juifs!,” the film seems to be saying, as we face the horror of what is happening to/in American culture. They’re not a decadent family, like Visconti’s Essenbecks in The Damned (or rotting before our very eyes, like Aschenbach in Death in Venice) — but they are cosmopolitan and intellectual: the opposite of Trump and his “America First” philosophy.

  2. Christopher Sharrett

    Thanks, Robert. I think the film is an assertion of life against death, in Norman O. Brown’s formula–which is the first and most important thing we need in these awful times. Still, I wonder if the family is too self-satisfied and comfortable, outside the horrors of the present ….

  3. Robert K Lightning

    Very illuminating ruminations on this film. (I found particularly intriguing your reference to Araki).

    I don’t, however, agree that Elio might one day marry Marzia, a possibility that contradicts the evidence of mutual maturation (in what is, after all, a bildungsroman) contained in their mutual agreement to remain friends “for life”: both have accepted the impossibility of a relationship .

    Further evidence of Elio’s personal growth (in his case, his acceptance of his gayness) is provided at the conclusion, which (I think) is best read as an inversion of all that has preceded. In contrast to the self-serious youth who (initially) refused to dance (in the wonderful dance scene) and was immersed in serious music, Elio now breaks into a spontaneous dance when he returns home, his dance moves implying that he is probably listening to pop music on his walkman. He is also more neatly dressed and coiffed, suggesting a greater desire to arouse sexual interest in others. (His encounter with his mother in the kitchen further suggests that the family more fully embraces its Jewishness).

    All of which (dance, pop music, style) are culturally recognizable (if, granted, oversimplified) signs of gayness. If Elio is now more like the free-spirited Oliver, the structuring device of inversion applies equally to Oliver, his decision to marry implying his inability to follow the path Elio has (by implication) chosen. Coincidentally, Call Me by Your Name (inversion again) takes place at nearly the same historical moment where Brokeback Mountain concludes, suggesting that the early 1980s is becoming recognized as a transitional period for gay culture. If there are parallels between the two films, Elio has at the conclusion become Jack Twist and Oliver is a potential Ennis Del Mar.

  4. Christopher Sharrett

    Rob,

    Intelligent remarks, but the penultimate snowbound final shots, and the last image of a lonely, forlorn Elio, don’t bode too well for his sexual awakening (the family setting the table in the background). The bildungsroman is constrained, with hero worship of Oliver informing his trajectory. You give me thoughts.

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