Call Me By Your Name needs a reality check

Call Me By Your Name is a dizzying ode to summer romance that reminds of Rohmer’s depictions of young people in films like A Summer’s Tale. Luca Guadagnino evokes his homeland with simple direction that makes one yearn for a vacation like this. It puts Aziz Ansari’s holiday scrapbook to shame. The performances are first-rate, especially Michael Stulhbarg’s revelatory monologue near the film’s close. But in trying to woo his audience, to get us drunk on the scenery and pure life of it all, Guardino overlooks some of the more troublesome ideas at its core.

It is heartening that in 2017 we can have positive cinematic gay romances that aren’t purely about the restriction to lifestyle. But then why give the film an 80s period setting if not to explore the cultural moment?  Never mind that by 1983 the AIDS crisis was underway and millions were fearing for their lives regardless of orientation. There is simply no fear from any of the characters here. 17-year-old Elio’s parents are completely supportive, the anxieties of the day not a factor in their removed holiday paradise. Very European, but is this telling us how life is or rather, how it should be?

When Elio rejects Marzia, she isn’t upset because he is gay, it’s because he no longer wants her. Chiara, who constantly chases after Armie Hammer’s clearly uninterested Oliver, is shown as something of a joke. They, like Elio’s mother Anella, are props to be looked at but not engaged with. When Marzia tells Elio she has read the book of poetry he gave her, his complete disinterest shows the film’s own lack of interest in perspective outside that of the teenage boy.  

Tell me why I should really care that this 17-year-old is suffering from heartbreak six months after saying goodbye. His life is still perfectly on track, his family still love him and are very caring, he is sure to become another wealthy intellectual. But he is an asshole.

It also features no actual gay sex. Sure, there’s plenty of longing glances, and that peach scene is a marvel, but when it comes to the central couple’s consummation, the camera respectfully pans away. Yet earlier in the film Guadagnino lustfully observes Marzia undressing. The film may treat its gay themes with an admirable casualness but it still plays to heteronormative audience expectations that make up the majority of viewers and, especially at this time of year, will vote for it.

None of this would matter if this was a little Indie film that passed most by. But in its entry in the Oscar race Call Me By Your Name has been repositioned as a liberal fantasy. Just look at how Sony tried to market it on Twitter this week. A year ago Moonlight, a radical film that expressed the pain of now alongside hope for the future, tied around gay and black life, won Best Picture in perhaps the greatest upset in Oscar history. Hollywood now seems to be course correcting by celebrating a film that acknowledges gay people exist but does not wish to engage with problems they face. Call Me By Your Name is an excellent film, but rewarding it in this way would be a mistake.

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