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.
Prof. 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.
The 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?
The 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.