Call Me by Your Name Review: Two (Straight) Stars

Call Me by Your Name tells the story of seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) who experiences the inimitable euphoria of falling in love for the first time and the inevitable heartbreak that follows. The summer romance he shares with another man lasts only six short weeks. Directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love and A Bigger Splash), the film is an adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 coming-of-age novel, translated for the screen by James Ivory. This stunning, arthouse film is set in the early 80’s in an unspecified location in Northern Italy. Much like Moonlight, 2016’s success story for gay cinema, Call Me by Your Name earned numerous nominations from some of the most prestigious film awards, including four Academy Award nominations. On paper, the film is everything that a young, gay man would expect to capture and break his own heart.

Italian-American Elio is a musical prodigy who speaks three languages. He spends his summers in Italy reading profound literature, transcribing classical music and composing different styles of Bach on piano. He had a loving relationship with his parents, they are a family of intellectuals. Elio states they are the only Jewish family in the region and they keep their religion discrete. Every summer his father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), selects a graduate student to come live with the family and assist him with his research. This particular summer the indisputably handsome, self-assured Oliver (Armie Hammer) is selected. Oliver is an archaeologist with an incredible academic and philosophical mind and a habit of leaving conversations with a dismissive “Later.”  It is Oliver’s arrival that awakens something inside of Elio. Oliver breathes life into his summer and awakens his dormant sexuality. It is unfortunate that the introduction of Hammer’s Oliver has quite a different effect on the viewer.

From the moment Oliver steps out of a car in his billowy shirt with exposed, never-ending legs, it is apparent there is something jarring about the casting of Hammer. Though Hammer’s performance certainly captures the cockiness of Oliver, it isn’t quite powerful enough to distract viewers from the fact that once again a film with a same-sex couple at its heart has decided to cast two straight actors in the leading roles. Oliver is the third character that Hammer has portrayed in a same-sex relationship, like fellow actor James Franco he has been accused of queerbaiting LGBT audiences to prove himself as a progressive actor.

On top of this Hammer’s age raises an issue. He is thirty-two-years-old playing the twenty-four-year-old love interest of seventeen-year-old Elio. Chalamet is twenty-one-years-old. The love story already faced criticism for the age-gap between the two lovers with critics arguing that it reinforced the harmful predatory stereotype that members of the LGBT community face. However, through casting actors with an even greater age gap between them, the film only draws further attention to this issue. This is supported by the striking contrast between Chalamet’s boy like figure and Hammer’s Greek godlike physique, which are constantly exposed as both actors spend the majority of the film wearing only swimming shorts.

Chalamet accurately portrays the vulnerability and relatability of falling in love for the first time with another man. Every movement and sound he makes is believable, from his stolen glances at Oliver to the crack in his voice when he calls his mum to pick him up after Oliver’s departure.  There is no denying that his performance is breath-taking and as a result, his nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars is well-deserved. However, this makes Chalamet approximately the fiftieth straight actor to receive an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a gay character. As Sir Ian Mckellen has previously pointed out: no openly gay man has ever won the Oscar for Best Actor. Despite being openly gay himself, Guadagnino’s casting choices leaves Call Me by Your Name in the company of other critically acclaimed LGBT films (Brokeback Mountain and Milk) that have highlighted the perceived discrimination LGBT actors face.

As a result of the poster they chose to use to market the film (a still of Elio and a female love interest paired with a quotation about the intensity of the romance in the film), Sony has once again been accused of trying to straight-wash a gay film. Call Me by Your Name is unmistakably a queer love story. There are very specific factors of a love shared by two men, such as the rejection they face from their families and the secrecy society forces them into, that are not present in a straight relationship. These factors would be even more prominent when their love develops at the same time of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. However, the film seems determined to establish itself as more than just a gay love story in a bid to appeal to a wider, more ‘general’ audience. It’s desire to be regarded as more a coming-of-age story is clear and disappointing. The relationship Elio explores with Marzia (Esther Garrel) whilst struggling with his feelings towards Oliver is given a surprising amount of screen time. The way in which the camera is framed and lingers on the sex scenes involving Elio and Marzia, harshly contrasts the filming style applied to sex scenes between Elio and Oliver. The moments shared between Elio and Marzia are more brightly lit, show more skin and are shot much closer up. Though there are several tender moments shown between the two male lovers, such as when Elio places his foot on top of Oliver’s and when Oliver first touches Elio on the shoulder. However, when it comes to the much anticipated sex scene, Guadagnino pans the camera away to focus on a tree. In Aciman’s novel, there is a very graphic sex scene involving a peach, the scene in the film depicting this was rewritten and downplayed. Sony have faced criticism several times before for their choice of film stills used to market their films. Carol, the 2015 film starring Cate Blanchett told the story of a forbidden love affair between two female characters. Sony marketed the film with a romantic shot of Cate Blanchett and male co-star Kyle Chandler.

Despite its flaws, Call Me by Your Name is a beautiful film. The final scene is haunting: a three minute close up of Chalamet staring into a fireplace, tears falling down his face as Elio begins to process the loss of his first love. The song that plays over this scene, Visions of Gideon, is one of two harrowing songs that singer Sufjan Stevens produced specifically for the film. The other, Mystery of Love, was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. The film alone may not leave you with your own broken heart but the overwhelming sadness of these songs will. Stevens words reach deep inside your chest and bring to the surface the excruciating pain that never quite went away after losing your first love. Saving Visions of Gideon for the film’s final moments is perhaps the wisest decision made in the entire production.

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