“Is it better to speak or to die?”
Set against the backdrop of a splendid, sun-drenched summer vacation somewhere in Northern Italy, “Call Me By Your Name” explores this question, somehow falling on the side of “better to speak” without doing much speaking at all. As Elio (Timothée Chalamet) poses the question to Oliver (Armie Hammer), Oliver stares away from him, waiting to hear where he stands on the issue. The connection between the two men matures, unconsummated and untasted, alongside the peaches and apricots dripping from the orchard trees that surround them and asks the audience to wait patiently for the moment it’s at its ripest, so that the first time Elio and Oliver kiss, despite how much has built up to the transgression of that physical boundary, it feels like the thousandth time.
The physical contrast between the two leads gives way to contrasts in their personalities that bring them closer together. Hammer cuts distinctly the figure of a man—tall, hairy, and muscular— whereas Chalamet is smaller, with delicate features and a borderline androgynous energy. Despite this, it is Elio who makes the first move, and it is he who must court Oliver. In early parts of the film, Oliver oozes confidence, knowing what he wants and taking what he pleases, never apologizing for it. He arrives at the Perlman’s instantly at ease, and without an ounce of self consciousness. He fumbles, however, with the connection he feels with Elio, sure that he cannot proceed or pursue it without compromising his morality. Elio, fussy and reserved, must close the gap between them, and he does so by borrowing the confidence that Oliver displays in other parts of his life. Despite the contrast between them the characters have a distinct spark that knit them together on a nearly cosmic level; the chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet shines through in these aspects of Oliver and Elio’s relationship.
Oliver specifically is extremely aware of his sense of self control, making it clear from the beginning that although he is comfortable drinking in the world around him, he knows his limits and he knows where to stop. In terms of his relationship with Elio, when the younger boy starts to court him, he distances himself, saying: “I know myself. I want to be good.” Oliver’s self control and restraint is mirrored in director Luca Guadagnino’s storytelling as the audience feels both characters’ yearning tugging at them from their seats.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a clear Academy Awards contender for a substantial number of reasons, as it should be. Timothée Chalamet being up for Best Actor; James Ivory for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay); the film in general for Best Picture are, no surprise. It would be painting too rosy a picture, however, not to acknowledge that the film does have some shortcomings—the whiteness of both leads, the age difference between the men, and the fact that they don’t end up together, in addition to the fact that there is absolutely no male nudity in the film. In a film about a sexual and romantic relationship between two men, there is near full-frontal female nudity, but not a penis in sight. Arguments could be made about the ramifications between showing graphic sex sequences between characters ages 17 and 24, but it begs the question: is a gay love story between two men only acceptable to the general population if they don’t have to see what it is that makes it so gay? In a cinematic climate where female bodies are shown so much and so casually that they’re almost old news, “Call Me By Your Name” had a golden opportunity to flip the script, and chose not to utilize it.
The film does, however, shirk the expectation of the coming-out scene: rather than Elio coming clean to his parents about his relationship with Oliver in a tearful, shaky speech, his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) approaches him, speaking in subtext but making his message clear: Elio and Oliver had something special, something rare and pure, and he aches for his son’s loss of that relationship. The nature of that relationship and the nontraditional aspect of it are nothing to him, because Elio is his son and he loves him, but also because ultimately, it’s not a big deal. Elio is Elio and Oliver is Oliver and they were a perfect match. He sighs, smiles at his son, and quotes Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne: “Because it was him, because it was me.” It is a simple sentiment that speaks profoundly to the type of relationship and bond that has played out on-screen. The connection between not only both characters but the actors as well feels like fate—had anything been different, everything would have.
***“Call Me By Your Name” was released on Nov. 24, 2017. It was directed by Luca Guadagnino, written by Luca Guadagnino, James Ivory, and Walter Fasano and stars: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, and Esther Garrel. “Call Me By Your Name” is rated R.
This article originally appeared in the print edition of our February 2018, issue.