The Gay Melodrama and Fantasy of ‘Call Me by Your Name’
A look inside filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s riveting gay love story, starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, which is earning serious awards buzz. (Warning: Spoilers)
“I have touched you for the last time, is it a video?”
The summer of 1983, two years after the debut of MTV and the popularization of the music video, is where we find Timothée Chalamet’s teenage Elio, attempting to seduce one of his father’s visiting grad students (Armie Hammer’s Oliver). Elio’s seduction is in his movements—how he wriggles his hips like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, or Madonna in their early ’80s videos, how he keeps his bedroom door open at night to let the moonlight suggest his intentions, how he darts around Oliver’s body during conversations like an archaeologist examining an unearthed statue.
In translating a book like André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name into a film, a book that focuses so much on the interior fantasies of its protagonist, director Luca Guadagnino had quite the task. As it turns out, Guadagnino is adept at creating fantasy himself—the film plays like a VHS tape you’ve rewound several times, hoping to relive the magic of the first time it played out before your eyes. The question at hand in Call Me by Your Name then, becomes: Is it even possible?
The melodramatic setting of the Italian countryside, with its rolling hills, sensual swimming pools and waterfalls, and the looming architecture of Italy’s past plays to how the film explores the apocryphal nature of memory. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, with his nebulously Christian rock music, contributes new material to the film’s soundtrack that questions how we remember our past. “Oh, to see without my eyes / the first time that you kissed me,” Stevens sings on “Mystery of Love,” reflecting on Elio and Oliver’s first intimate encounter. Elio lived that moment, yes, but perhaps his memory has betrayed him? The film’s conclusion leaves Elio on the verge of tears, morosely remembering his now-expired relationship with Oliver as Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” poses the question: “Is it a video? Is it a video? Is it a video?”
After all, if the moment truly happened the way Elio remembers it, wouldn’t Oliver still be with him? Wouldn’t he have been there in person at Christmas when Elio’s family returns, instead of phoning him with the devastating news that he’s engaged?
Stevens explores the doubt of our memories in “Visions of Gideon,” which refers to the biblical prophet Gideon who God shepherded toward a surprise victory. For many young gay men who have their first sexual encounter, it can be impossible to know if the conclusion was foregone or an act of divine intervention. In a society with few depictions of romantic love between gay men, let alone in their formative years as teens, how could Elio know what was actually possessing him? It takes a conversation with his father, Michael Stuhlbarg’s Lyle, to process his feelings and recognize that there is a precedent for his emotions. Oliver offers him no such guidance, save for sexual tutelage, because Elio later learns that he was merely a summer affair: Oliver had a woman back in the United States, a woman he knows intimately enough to marry.
And so Elio scribbles journal entries to keep a record of his memories, like the time he accuses Oliver of giving him the cold shoulder. Oliver, 24, tells 17-year-old Elio to “grow up,” however, and insinuates that this interpretation of events is Elio’s alone. If so, even Elio’s own words have betrayed him—the desire for “is it a video?” becomes a refrain to scrutinize his memories and Oliver’s and determine the truth. Not that a video would provide much resolution. You could turn on television in the ’80s and see George Michael shaking his ass in denim jeans and still believe he was straight. You could see Rock Hudson playing a straight leading man on Dynasty while he privately died of AIDS. The only thing Elio knows is that he has indeed touched and loved Oliver for the last time.
The first time I became aware of the fragility of our romantic memories was in recalling my own first encounter with another man. Much like Elio, mine was with an older man. But the situation, exchanging addresses through a computer in the cold winter of Chicago while I was a college student, couldn’t be more different from Elio’s interactions with Oliver. And yet, the way we navigate sexual relationships is not at all different from Elio and Oliver’s. The cat-and-mouse game is no different than messaging a man on a computer over a decade ago, or via an app on your phone—intent can be lost in the language of a sterile electronic conversation, just as Elio fails to notice that Oliver was flirting with him when he pressed his fingers to his back after a game of volleyball.
Call Me by Your Name draws its romantic nature from the idea that we’ve each crafted a fantasy of what romance is. For Elio, it’s sweeping romantic gestures. The mechanics of sex is pleasurable, but he finds distaste in masturbation, in touching his own semen, and he comes quickly in each of his encounters. For Oliver, he puts on a fine performance of a romantic suitor, but he’s about sex and the emotions are second. Perhaps what Elio truly learns is that in his mind, as he made his summer with Elio worthy of the Brontë sisters, it was not the most important moment in Oliver’s life.
Is this film telling us that the illusion of romance is just that? An illusion? Perhaps, but then Guadagnino has produced such a lush film, brimming with the beauty of nature. So is his own point of view at odds with the film’s? Guadagnino’s film ends with Oliver calling Elio to play the romantic game they devised during their affair, where Oliver told Elio, “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.” Aciman’s novel, however, ends with Oliver and Elio meeting years later and Elio silently despairing that if Oliver ever truly loved him, he would once again “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”
Guadagnino’s adaptation does away with this end, perhaps because it’s depressing, but also because it’s not how he views love. It’s why his film relies so much on the music of Sufjan Stevens, who once said in an interview with The Atlantic, “It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance, I am living and moving and being.” Call Me by Your Name suggests that Elio doesn’t truly need to know whether Oliver loved him. Because he has his feelings, he has his VHS tape of their moments together to dust off and replay in his mind, and if he wants it to be true, then it is true. It’s a gift to a gay audience that rarely receives a homosexual romance that doesn’t end in tragedy, and who turn to cinema to escape their own disappointment-filled lives. To take in a fantasy-like romance of a young man and an older suitor; to ignore the incredibly unsexy encounter they may have had, during a cold Chicago winter, with an older man whose idea of romance was muting The Late Show with David Letterman, the flickering of the television set mirroring a young college student’s saccharine idea of their first, candlelit sexual encounter.
Guadagnino asks us to disregard that the entire summer could have been in his imagination, another one of the stories that his mother reads to him at night to comfort him. Conceivably, Elio’s father may be the most important in the film. He’s a professor who uses remnants of the past to shape his own interpretations of events. When speaking of one of the statues he and Oliver excavates from the ocean, the professor describes it as “begging you to desire them.” How does he know? He has faith.