“Is it better to speak or to die?”
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlberg
Screenplay by James Ivory
Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (2018)
Call Me By Your Name is based on a novel with the same name, by André Aciman. It is a beautiful coming of age film about Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) who explores his sexuality through his summer romance with Oliver (Armie Hammer), an academic who comes to live with his parents.
The film is highly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman culture, and follows the practice of pederasty, a socially acknowledged and accepted romantic relationship between an adult male and a younger, pubescent male, which occurs before the older male is married to a woman. The younger male in this story, Elio, whose name is derived from Helios, the Greek god of the sun, and resembles Helios’ physical appearance as well, is the son of an Ancient Greek and Roman academic. Oliver, our adult male, has come to live with the Perlman’s to finish his book and help Elio’s father out with his work.
Call Me By Your Name begins with the opening credits over ancient bronze statues, linking the characters with ancient Greece. Many ancient Greek statues are believed to be influenced by this pederasty practice as statues of men are usually displayed sensually. This is idea is pushed when Elio’s father, Sam (Michael Stuhlberg), and Oliver are looking at these statues, while Elio finds a note from Oliver, asking him to see him at midnight, linking the statues with sex;
Muscles are firm. Look at his stomach…Not a straight body in these statues. They’re all curved…So nonchalant. Hence their ageless ambiguity, as if they are daring you to desire them.
Samuel even says there is not a straight body among them. He is, of course, referring to the shape of the statues but the audience knows better. Oliver throughout this scene looks very uncomfortable as if he is aroused by the statues and the words provided by Elio’s father. This link between homoeroticism and statues continues when Sam is studying a statue that washes up on shore. Oliver sensually explores its face with his fingers. This movement is mirrored when Elio and Oliver first touch and Oliver runs his fingers over Elio’s face.
Pederasty was approved by the young males father, and even sought it out for their sons. This is important element in Call Me By Your Name because not only does it fit the modern retelling of this cultural element of ancient Greece, but because it shows an acceptance of Elio’s sexuality by his family rarely seen in queer cinema. Unfortunately, the lack of acceptance in both Hollywood and in the world in the 80s, when the film is set, is reflected when Oliver talks about how his parents would react;
From the way your father spoke – he made me feel like a member of the family – almost like a son-in-law.
You’re lucky. My father would have carted me off to a correctional facility.
Oliver feels a lot of shame around his homosexual feelings.
It means we can’t talk about those kinds of things. Okay? We just cant.
I know myself, okay? and we’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, and thats a good thing. I wanna be good.
Although shame is common among the LGBTQIA+ community, it is disappointing to always see this same storyline repeated throughout mainstream cinema. It is important to show queer characters that are accepted by their friends, family and society so that both young queer and straight people learn to accept themselves and everyone around them for what they are. It is also important to note that the film romanticises pederasty. Although not illegal, these relationships can involve the exploitation of vulnerable young people, especially those who are struggling with their sexuality and searching for acceptance.
The audience are voyeurs in Elio’s life, creating an intimacy to the scenes. We peer into rooms, from behind characters, and through objects. The shots are long, and will follow characters where possible, enabling the audience to be a character in this story. We meet Elio with his shirt off and his young age is immediately apparent. We watch as he grows into this sexuality, again emphasising his young age. We watch him shave his upper lip, smell his crush’s clothes and fantasise about having sex with him. We watch him write in his diary, expressing the raging, overwhelming emotions. We even watch him masturbate and see the shame he associates it. We are only invited in, away from our watchful position, when Elio’s heartbreaks. Firstly, when watching Oliver dance with and kiss a girl, and in the final and most powerful scene, where we watch the full extent of Elio’s pain, after hearing of Oliver’s engagement, as the credits roll.
Elio’s young age and the ignorance of youth are further emphasised in the final scenes of the film where we watch him sleep peacefully while Oliver is up all night, ruminating over what the next day brings – him going back to America. When Oliver finally gets on the train and leaves, Elio calls his mother and begs her to come get him;
Listen, Mum, can you… Can you come get me, Mum?
Elio then cries the whole drive home. It is important that Oliver leaves without saying ‘Later’, a farewell Oliver is known and mocked for throughout the film, suggesting the relationship does in fact end at this point, he will not see Elio again. However, we knew this was about a summer romance in an exotic land and therefore knew how it would end. Eventually, everyone has to go home.
The film feels like a memory, nostalgically taking us back to the Summer of 1983. It is filmed with a yellow filter, reflecting the warmth of the Italian countryside, and is filled with stereotypical scenes such as swimming and laying in the grass together. This is a memory viewed through rose-coloured glasses. As one of the Perlman guests says;
Cinema is a mirror of reality and it’s a filter.
This is a filtered memory of what happened, viewed with the filter of hindsight and youth.
The music written specifically for the film by Sufjan Stevens stunningly fits the film and its nostalgic feel with soft acoustic guitar and vocals. He even refers to Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, ancient Greek figures, as lovers. There is some belief that this love may have been similar to a pederasty love, again sticking to this theme of young, short-term romances.
Call Me By Your Name is a romanticisation of the summer love storyline. It is a really beautiful film about growing up and learning about love and heartbreak. Chalamet gives an astounding performance and will break your heart, but you will watch this film again and again and let him all do it all over anew.
It is one of my favourite films and I absolutely recommend this for your Friday Night Film Night.