With Luca Guadagnino’s Supriria (2018) coming out, I’ve been thinking more and more about his most recent film. Call Me by Your Name (2017) was released to the public almost a year ago, and after its Sundance praise, I was admittedly excited. I wanted to see a lavished, romantic coming-of-age story with a queer flair. I wanted to see a more patient, more beautiful, and less Americanized version of the narrative. (As pretentious as it may sound, I’ve often thought of myself as having a more “European” worldview.) But most of all, I wanted to see a good movie. And for almost a year, I thought I did. But I’m finally coming to terms that I didn’t get one.
What I got was—to use a word so bandied about that it now borders on ineffectual—problematic. Call Me by Your Name is the type of film that comes around with a stilted sort of neoliberal worldview and claims to open its eyes towards less conservative lifestyles. Instead what it adds to the zeitgeist is regressive depictions of sex, be they gay, straight, young, old, or anything. It’s been almost a year since Guadagnino’s film came out—is that enough time for more critical distance?
Now, for a little context on my background. I feel it’s important to be transparent about personal experiences that shape a viewer’s perception of a film when discussing it. As I’ve written about before, I am asexual and aromantic. In fact, my initial disappointment towards Call Me by Your Name was clouded by a sense of self-doubt: was I just unable to empathize with this part of life? Was I too emotionally distant? Maybe it was my fault. After a while, I’ve come to think that no, it isn’t my fault.
I realized I was asexual before I turned 17, but the main trigger with Guadagnino’s film is unrelated to my own sexuality: it’s that I was raped when I was 20, and the rapist was around 28 (maybe 27 or 29 or even 30—I’m not one hundred percent sure). Either way, the similarities between my own trauma and the romanticism of Call Me by Your Name was uncomfortable from the beginning to say the least. We have Elio (Timotheé Chalamet), a 17-year-old living in the north of Italy with his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). His dad is a professor who’s recruited the research help of 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), and although Elio is in the midst of experimenting with Marzia (Esther Garrel), the boy’s attentions are soon diverted towards the man seven years his senior. He tries to initiate a relationship with Oliver, but Oliver rebuts the offer citing no explicit reasons (it’s implied to be widespread homophobia and the constraints of traditional Judaism given the 1980s setting and lack of labeling anyone as gay). But the relationship takes flight soon enough, and even though the movie portrays it as something that just needs to happen, I couldn’t help but find it as disturbing.
First off, let me mention my remorse that this age difference is shown in a gay context. This depiction lends itself to the incredibly ill founded (and incredibly homophobic) conception that gay relationships are pedophilic—or in this case, ebhebophilic—or bizarre. And let me also be clear that I do not think Call Me by Your Name is pedo/ephebophilic, nor do I think it explicitly endorses any sort of predation. It’s just a woefully misguided attempt at capturing adolescence and early adulthood. Elio is meant to be 17, but Chalamet looks like he’s 15 on a good day. Oliver is meant to be 24, but he looks like he’s 36 at the least. Sorry; I just don’t buy it, and I can’t look past it.
So there’s a wild different in age, whether or not the filmmakers intended it (and again, I don’t think they did). And it’s different than the age difference in, say, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017), where even though the participants are over a decade apart, they’re both unquestionably adult in their maturity, worldview, and years. Elio, on the other hand, is a child who doesn’t realize that Oliver is making passes at him when the latter holds onto the former’s shoulder, and he’s largely dependent on his parents. They tickle his tummy; they call him “Elly-Belly”. I don’t care how precocious he is. I don’t care how much he knows about the arts. I don’t care how well he can play piano. He’s a kid. And please spare me the “But the age of consent in Italy is 14!” argument. That’s arbitrary. Legal does not equal ethical. Hell, just look at American history.
The movie may aim to capture the internal struggle of adolescence, but, as Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “[Guadagnino’s] actors are more or less in a constant proscenium of a frame that displays their action without offering a point of view.” His camera angles are far too desensitized to come off as more than ethnographic most of the time, and even the most effective parts aren’t Guadagnino’s doing. The sound design is much more evocative than anything else, and a lot of camera angles wouldn’t work without Chalamet or Stuhlbarg’s performances. The director just doesn’t work his sensuality into his emotions, and it makes Elio feel like a cadaver. The physicality is there, but not much else is.
Oliver, on the other hand, exemplifies the implicit predation pervading society thanks to male privilege and lack of knowledge on consent. He makes passes at this kid, and thanks to the latent power dynamic related to their age and varying wisdom, reels him into a tryst. The movie may think Elio has more agency since he initiates most of the relationship. He doesn’t. He’s too naïve and is painted as having virtually no social life, which makes him seem like even more of a flailing child.
This quickly leads to a sexual relationship. They sleep together and Elio exudes desperation whenever Oliver isn’t with him. It’s pathetic, really, to see this sort of dependence. (In all fairness, the film sees the boy’s awkwardness as pitiful in a “don’t leave me, pleeeease!” sort of way. It does get points for that.) But as Elio falls further into infatuation, Oliver plays with this sort of immaturity in a way screenwriter James Ivory doesn’t seem to be cognizant of.
After the “infamous” peach scene where Elio masturbates with a fruit, Oliver comes in and goes straight to fallating him. When he goes to play wrestling with him, Elio begins to realize that their summer tryst will end whether or not they try to keep it alive, and as Oliver climbs on top of him, he starts teasing the kid for his sexual confusion.
Elio begins to tear up.
Oliver begins to giggle, and then he gets aggressive. He keeps tugging on Elio’s body, pulling his arm and holding him down.
Elio cries more. “Please don’t do this… You’re fucking hurting me.”
Oliver retorts with the sternness of a predator: “Then don’t fight.”
This is the point where the film lost me, and I felt like an alien in the theater while others sat enrapt. Sure, this suffering is meant to be metaphorical regarding Elio’s growth, but that’s an incredibly seedy and oft-fetishized metaphor that the characters aren’t aware of. The rest of the film exists in what is meant to be reality, which makes this scene even truer. In the world of Call Me by Your Name, this sort of behavior is literal, and it’s abusive.
It’s topped off by something I found especially disturbing. After the encounter, Oliver begins to leave, gaslighting Elio into asking him to come back. Elio stands in a doorway when Oliver returns and, without consent, ducks below the frame and fallates Elio. Elio looks gobsmacked and Oliver says, “See? Now you’re hard again.” Then he walks away. It’s played for laughs, even though this is ethically dicey at best. At worst it’s an outright rape, and it’s treated as an inconsequential chuckle.
This was especially triggering for me as a survivor, and the laughter that filled the theater made me want to curl up into a ball. But the movie continued with its technical proficiency and strong performances, so I stayed under its spell.
With the encouragement of Elio’s parents, the couple goes on a trip to Bergamo, and they wander around the city streets late at night while drunk. Oliver can handle his drink well while Elio can’t, throwing up on the street. It’s implied that they have sex after this. And again, it’s bizarre at the least for an adult to have sex with a drunken teen, especially when the adult knows all too well that the kid can’t hold his alcohol. It’s another exploitation of Elio’s naïveté, and it’s saddening.
After the trip, Elio returns back to his parents while Oliver goes back to the States. The kid is clearly heartbroken—after all, his first love left him to his parents. As summer turns to winter, a depressed Elio receives a speech from his father, who has apparently been aware of this relationship since the beginning. This should be a beautiful acceptance of queer sexuality, but its context perverts it. Not only this, but Elio’s dad endorses it: he calls it “beautiful”, and tells Elio to savor the memories.
What he doesn’t do is ask if Elio felt taken advantage of. He doesn’t even probe his son’s mental state. He doesn’t try to figure out anything about his wellbeing and he doesn’t reassure him that relationships don’t have to be like this. In the world of Call Me by Your Name, this sort of exploitation isn’t just the norm. It’s outright gorgeous, and it’s something that kids should be so lucky to have. It’s worth it even if it leaves the kid with a warped sense of consent. Even if it warps emotional and physical intimacy. Even if it forces him into the role of a survivor of a toxic relationship that’s normalized by his own “caring” and “progressive” parents.
As Hanukkah comes, Elio’s parents get ready for dinner while Oliver calls on the phone. He tells Elio that he’s gotten engaged to a woman before leaving him hanging, and Elio goes to sit by the fireplace, weeping to himself while his family wanders around, completely unaware of the emotional abuse he’s endured.
And then the movie ends. With another brokenhearted queer teen that had to suffer in order to live.
Aside from a few fleeting references to institutionalized/internalized homophobia, Ivory’s script severely lacks enough self-awareness to work as a reflection of life itself. I get if my reading of the film seems like a petty projection onto a movie that thousands have found solace in, but just like so many people have loved Call Me by Your Name, I’ve found it just as saddening in ways unintended and morally questionable, both in what it romanticizes and—arguably worse—normalizes. If it weren’t for the performances or Chalamet and Stuhlbarg, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, and Guadagnino’s sensuality as a technical filmmaker, I might downright despise the film.
There’s an undeniable craftsmanship that glosses it towards more aspirations than it otherwise might, but it isn’t enough to redeem it from the deeply conservative and faux-intellectual content that masks itself as progressive and authentic. The characters are stock, Oliver rarely seems like more than a pretentiously pretty Ken doll who’s come to life, and Hammer’s performance gives no layers to an already-shallow character. In a way I’m kind of thankful for that, because we all know (or at least should know) that we don’t need to deepen entitled creeps beyond what our world has already given them. Then there are other details that vary in seriousness: Elio stringing Marzia along is a selfish trope; and if I ever came across a couple in real life calling each other by their own names, I’d say, “Jeez, that’s some insufferable middle school nonsense.”
I’ve gone from barely liking this movie upon its release to resenting it more and more over the past year. But if nothing else, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I dislike the film and hate parts of it, and with that, I’m ready to close it all out of my life—at least until the sequel comes out. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be better. I really hope so.
Some people love this movie, and that’s okay. I get what they’re latching onto. But I don’t like this movie very much. And that’s okay too.