‘Call Me by Your Name’: The Sexy, Poignant Gay Love Story Turning All of Sundance On
Luca Guadagnino’s film premiered to a standing ovation at Sundance, a gay love story that’s an impossibly beautiful feast visually, emotionally, and—my god—sexually.
The peach scene is in it.
If you’re a queer person who has read André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name, a hybrid coming out and coming-of-age story set in Italy in the early ’80s, that news will both comfort and titillate you.
If you haven’t, imagine the infamous American Pie scene, but with dignity, emotional truth, and a semblance of relatability. But, you know, a guy still fucks a fruit.
It’s that dance between the aching familiarity that is so unfamiliar on screen—first love, but through the eyes of a young gay person—and sensuality, humor, and absurdity that makes director Luca Guadagnino’s (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) latest film, the adaptation of Call Me by Your Name, so special.
It’s why it earned an extended standing ovation when it premiered Sunday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
It’s why seeing the film in a movie theater was tantamount to group gay catharsis for the audience in attendance, many of whom were weeping by the film’s end and then bogarted the post-screening Q&A to thank Guadagnino for the film and its portrait of struggling for acceptance.
It’s why Call Me by Your Name will likely go down as one of the best gay love stories of the last decade in film.
Starring Armie Hammer and breakout actor, 20-year-old Timothée Chalamet, the film opens in 1983 northern Italy, in one of those dream picturesque villas that seem to only exist in cinema—the perfect setting for an intense summer romance.
Chalamet is Elio, the 17-year-old son of academics who are hosting Hammer’s 24-year-old scholar Oliver for the summer. Their relationship is a push and pull from the start. Elio labels Oliver “the usurper,” yet is eager to be the strapping new arrival’s guide to the new town.
They’re a captivating pair: Elio, with his lean beanpole body throbbing with pubescence, and Oliver, the toned post-grad inhabited by The Social Network’s Hammer, so stylish and statuesque in every breathtaking frame. There’s their dynamic, too: quickly and effortlessly bonded, but also instantly antagonistic. Both want something from each other, but flip their magnets over to repel the second the connection draws them too close.
It’s not clear at first that either character is gay, or even questioning, beyond the fact that you know you just purchased a ticket to a gay romance, thus making each interaction and every meticulously crafted frame of Guadagnino’s its own veritable blood-rush of arousal.
Each character shows off for each other. Elio, his piano skills; Oliver, his book smarts and domineering demeanor. It’s mutual masturbation before there’s even the hint of physical attraction, a thrill that’s heightened by Guadagnino’s filmmaking, which is awash with sexual tension, sweaty bodies, and swimsuits that cling just so to wet, shirtless bodies.
When Elio, behind closed doors, starts exhibiting his crush on Oliver, it’s played matter-of-factly, the kind of natural progression and self-realization that we’re so used to seeing in heterosexual romances that it’s almost jarring, even confusing, when it starts to happen.
And when Oliver starts having frank confrontations with Elio about their attraction, which had thus far been treated with a wink and knowing wit by Guadagnino, James Ivory, and Walter Fasano’s script, the practical reasoning that dominates their conversations seems completely ordinary.
Suddenly all of Oliver’s peacocking in front of Elio makes sense. He wanted to be desired.
Elio’s sexual awakening is shielded by his desire to protect himself from his confusing feelings, but is also propelled forward by his excitement over his attraction, and his perception that Oliver might be attracted, too. The two spend the entire summer shirtless, ostensibly for each other’s benefit, even leaving the bathroom door they share constantly open, should the other happen to sneak a glimpse.
Knowing that they’re supposed to be together makes this dance akin to the kind of frustration kids these days call “blue balls.” But there’s something incredibly endearing about Oliver’s concern for Elio’s young well-being, should they, in this year decades ago, indulge in their attraction, and Elio’s sheepish gumption in confronting the older Oliver about it in the first place.
Their eventual coupling is presented almost as if it’s inevitable, understood, or even intrinsic. Imagine being a young queer person, watching this certainty about love and, more importantly, about sex, and believing that can happen to you. Because it does.Even before Elio and Oliver make their first physical contact, Call Me by Your Name rings all those spectacularly universal bells that anyone who has experienced a first love, or a forbidden love, can hear in loud reverberations. But for an audience not used to seeing that experience reflected with a same-sex couple, the film is a rarity.
Just watching it is a visceral experience.
Shot in Italy and benefitting from an almost preternatural connection between Hammer and Chalamet, it’s a film that is drenched with sunlight and hormones. The idyllic Italian setting and new-love raw intimacy emanates from the film like pheromones you are carnally drawn to.
By the time Elio and Oliver start having sex, your own sex drive kick-starts as well. It’s that primal.
Their first physical encounter is voyeuristically intimate. It’s silent enough to hear Elio’s heart palpitating at the anxious thrill of it. As they jump into each other arms and roll on the bed, the creaking of the old bed frame is like an aural aphrodisiac. Each movement they make has an impact: the way they tangle their bodies, use their breath, carelessly disrupt a floorboard.
The camera pans out a window at the moment, and you almost want to groan. But you also want to give Elio and Oliver their privacy. They deserve it.
For allowing them their modesty, we’re repaid with the most sensual pillow talk in recent memory, and the film’s namesake. “Call me your name,” Oliver asks of Elio, the boy whispering, “Oliver, Oliver, Oliver,” and Oliver cooing “Elio” in return.
The entire sequence is a treat for your heart and your libido.
Their first tryst ignites an affair, one that even Elio’s parents can no longer ignore, and one so beautiful that they do not want to. They suggest that the couple go off on a trip together before Oliver must return to the United States, leaving Elio behind. And before he can realize the impact of it, the most transformative summer of Elio’s life is over.
It would all be depressing, were it not for the clarity brought to it by his father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Stuhlbarg delivers a monologue to Elio that is so progressive, so enlightened, and so accepting—encouraging even—of his son’s relationship with Oliver that it would read as implausible were it not layered with such authenticity by Stuhlbarg’s performance.
It is the speech any queer person would dream of hearing from his or her father at that time in their lives, to the point that you begin to wonder if Elio is an unreliable narrator. Perhaps his recollection of the conversation, in 2017 decades after a far less open-minded ’80s, is wish fulfillment, or history rewritten.
Regardless, it’s two minutes of film that will be seared into every gay person who is in its thrall—explaining why it dominated so much of the Sundance post-screening conversation.
And what of that peach?
That peach is what will get people buzzing about this film, thanks to Guadagnino’s clever teasing throughout the entire film of the pivotal scene. His own foreplay, of sorts. Maybe word of mouth about it is what will entice a wider swath of filmgoers to the movie, aside from the LGBT demographic that is already desperate to see the film.
It will be a conversation starter for sure, and that’s fine. Call Me By Your Name is about sex. It’s about sex and sensuality and attraction and the love that bubbles underneath that. And, thanks to Stuhlbarg’s speech, all that’s given a new name: normal.