One might call this the anti-Brokeback Mountain. I mean that as a compliment to both that movie and this; both are excellent, but both are largely reflective of the times of their release. It's been twelve years now since that seminal tragic romance, and here, with Call Me By Your Name, we get a romance, between men, that has no tragedy at all. This is a love to be celebrated, to be regarded with joy. There is some sadness, but it's only the same kind of circumstance that could affect any couple of people who fall in love.
That said, one of the many things to love about this film by director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) is that it still acknowledges the challenges facing young gay men in the early eighties -- it just doesn't dwell on them. Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, a standout) lives in northern Italy with his progressive professor parents, pretty well free of the typical American socializations of young men. Visiting twenty-something college student Oliver (Armie Hammer), however, more than once acknowledges how his parents would react poorly to their relationship.
Relatively early on, Oliver even says, "We haven't done anything to be ashamed of," the implication being that only if they did anything sexual would that be the case. But then romance does blossom between them, and still neither of them can bring themselves to feel shame. It seems it doesn't even seem to occur to them.
It takes a while even to get to this point, as much time is spent on Elio and Oliver simply becoming friends at first. Upon meeting, Elio isn't even sure he likes Oliver. Guadagnino takes his time here to such a degree that, at first, I began to wonder what the big deal was about this movie. There's nothing wrong with it, sure, but where is this going? It's pleasant enough, but hardly earth-shattering.
It turns out that's precisely the point: Call Me By Your Name contains no emotional cataclysms. It merely draws you in, slowly and confidently, until you just want to wrap yourself in its sweetness, its simple purity. There is a soothing steadiness to its overall tone, and there is sadness in just having the story end.
And although the story is very much about Elio and Oliver, and their connection is genuinely moving, nothing in this movie moved me more than the relationship between Elio and his father, played with a unique level of compassion by Michael Stuhlbarg. Oh, if only every young gay man could have a father as understanding and deeply empathetic as Elio's! This guy's existence almost seems like a fairy tale, but Stuhlbarg grounds him, makes him believable. He and his son just might have something in common.
Unfortunately, there is a couple of somewhat salacious elements to Call Me By Your Name's reputation, and I suppose I should address them. Yes, a certain thing, which I presume is unprecedented in cinema, is done to a peach. Believe it or not the whole sequence, while a tad comical, is surprisingly tasteful. And then, of course, there is the age discrepancy between Elio and Oliver, one of them technically underage. But anyone trying to use that to discredit this film is missing the point about our current cultural discussion about consent -- Elio and Oliver's relationship is believably, plausibly equitable. Neither of them is taken advantage of.
Indeed, their budding romance takes so much time, and there are subtle signals in the beginning, they likely will enrich the film upon multiple viewings. Therein lies the answer to where the story is going. It's going someplace new, at least for American mainstream cinema -- somewhere beautiful, and lovely, and deeply affecting.
Are Elio and Oliver gay? They both start off having experiences with young women. Some have argued that a movie like this should be characterized as bisexual rather than gay, but this movie is clearly sidestepping any such politicizing. Its answer seems to be another question: does it matter? These two are as surprised as anyone that they fall in love with each other. I did feel bad for the women enamored with them, though -- they represent all too many women who have longed for men looking for what they cannot provide.
Call Me By Your Name is a love story, pure and simple, but of a kind some of us have long wished to see more of. Even the practice described by the title, which seems on its face to be rather odd, plays sensibly in context. As does every minor event in this film. That's what this is: a series of minor events, which, when taken together, add up to something wonderful and true. So it goes with any of us who fall in love with another person who is decent and good -- the very attributes that make it easy to fall in love with this film.