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The Current Debate: The Excessive Perfection of "Call Me By Your Name"

Luca Guadagnino’s critical darling desires only to be desired.
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name appears to be well on its way to box office and awards success, having earned both this year’s best opening weekend among limited releases and a Best Picture award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The film is about an affair between Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious teenager, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the graduate student who comes to Italy to assist Elio’s father in the summer of 1983. Like 2015’s A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino’s latest features lots of pretty images of beautiful people doing luxurious things, but, as Manohla Dargis contends at The New York Times, it has more than that to offer:
Even so, the lyricism seduces as does fragile, ecstatic Elio. “Call Me by Your Name” is less a coming-of-age story, a tale of innocence and loss, than one about coming into sensibility. In that way, it is about the creation of a new man who, the story suggests, is liberated by pleasure that doesn’t necessarily establish sexual identity. It’s important that Elio and Oliver have relationships with women, though for seemingly different reasons: the overheated Elio sleeps with a girlfriend (Esther Garrel), while Oliver carries on a more performative affair with a local (Victoire Du Bois). The women are not treated with much kindness, but these affairs further complicate the movie’s vision of pleasure’s fluidity.
This notion is echoed by Anthony Lane at The New Yorker, who adds that the effect is to distinguish this story from the typically label-oriented politics of sexuality:
By falling for each other, Oliver and Elio tumble not into error, still less into sin, but into a sort of delirious concord, which may explain why Elio’s parents, far from disapproving, bestow their tacit blessing on the pact. More unusual still is that the movie steers away from the politics of sexuality. Elio makes love to Marzia, on a dusty mattress, in a loft like an old dovecote, only hours before he meets with Oliver at midnight, but you don’t think, Oh, Elio’s having straight sex, followed by gay sex, and therefore we must rank him as bi-curious. Rather, you are curious about him and his paramours as individuals—these particular bodies, with these hungry souls, at these ravening moments in their lives. Desire is passed around the movie like a dish, and the characters are invited to help themselves, each to his or her own taste. Maybe a true love story (and when did you last see one of those?) has no time for types.
Yet this apparent freedom from politics and labels, while refreshing on its surface, comes at a cost. As K. Austin Collins writes at The Ringer, the film largely glosses over the political contexts that might have darkened its rose-colored glasses:
Guadagnino’s film is wonderful and, in fact, radical for exploring queer coming of age with the empathy and curiosity that it does. But it elides contexts that might have complicated the warmth of its morality. The film is set in 1982, and Oliver is American: His Reagan-era charm butts up against the newfound queerness of a man growing up in Europe. Worlds of context and subtext open up even there, but the film rushes past them. It treats their initial sexual encounters like well-earned consummations of desire — which, in a way, they are. But its brief gestures toward a broader, more dangerous world raise questions the movie knowingly does not answer. The movie is a safe space; I love it, but I’m not sure it ought to be.
Indeed, the safe space is practically a vacuum, and political context is not all that is lost to it. At The New Yorker, Richard Brody argues that the film lacks—to an untenable degree—meaningful details about the characters whose happiness it so wishes to celebrate:
What their romantic lives have been like prior to their meeting, they never say. Is Oliver the first man with whom Elio has had an intimate relationship? Has Elio been able to acknowledge, even to himself, his attraction to other men, or is the awakening of desire for a male a new experience for him? What about for Oliver? Though Elio and Oliver are also involved with women in the course of the summer, they don't ever discuss their erotic histories, their desires, their inhibitions, their hesitations, their joys, their heartbreaks. They're the most tacit of friends and the most silent of lovers-or, rather, in all likelihood they're voluble and free-spoken, as intellectually and personally and verbally intimate as they are physically intimate, as passionate about their love lives as about the intellectual fires that drive them onward-but the movie doesn't show them sharing these things. Guadagnino can't be bothered to imagine (or to urge Ivory to imagine) what they might actually talk about while sitting together alone. Scenes deliver some useful information to push the plot ahead and then cut out just as they get rolling, because Guadagnino displays no interest in the characters, only in the story.
While I agree, I don’t think the fine-grained distinction between characters and story quite measures the film’s weak punch. Jonathan Romney, at Film Comment, comes closer:
But the biggest problem for me is the way that the film’s aesthetic perfection militates against its emotional charge (although I know many viewers won’t agree). The world depicted here is so glossily perfect that this feels like a film less about life than about lifestyle—not unlike a similar long-hot-Italian-summer movie, Stealing Beauty by Bertolucci (the subject of a 2013 documentary by Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano). What Guadagnino mounts for us is an extended ravishment in an entirely ravishing world. Yet the characters’ beauty and intellectual perfection is so consummate that I couldn’t entirely believe that these people actually had genitals—that they could ever sweat or incur sunburn. Those splashes of sperm must have come from somewhere, though, unless they’re just the juice of a highly exclusive and refined strain of Lombardy peach.
Had the film’s aesthetic perfection been limited to its visual execution, and not gone so far as to efface its characters, Call Me By Your Name might have been quite a wonderful film. (A Bigger Splash is, in my opinion, nearly so.) The one we have has it merits, but I’m hoping those calling it Guadagnino’s masterpiece are swiftly proven wrong by his next.
***
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.
I wouldn't describe Call Me By Your Name as being anywhere near as sanitised as how it's inferred by some of the extracts in this article. I stand by my admiration of this film and could identify legitimate justifications as to how the issues mentioned here would have been deliberate choices to evoke responses accordingly - particularly the idealistic nature of the setting (i.e. presented through "rose-coloured glasses") which I felt the film was intentionally communicating as an externalisation of Elio's purity and naivety which carry the subjective presentation of the narrative (The novel on which the film is based on is narrated by Elio as an older man, recollecting the memories of that summer; a framing device which the film needn't disclose, yet one which it communicated appropriately nonetheless). Furthermore, I would hesitate to propose that Luca Guadagnino intended to meticulously sew the tapestry that is this film only with lavish palettes and the finest of fabrics simply to expect for his audience to just gaze and admire the beautiful aesthetics and their flattering framing. I would suggest that Guadagnino is well aware that film spectatorship is neither an act of gazing or seeing but indeed, a synchronised dance between watching and listening. Should we then criticise Guadagnino and James Ivory for arranging and choreographing a fluid duet? Indeed the cinematography is lush and precise, but is it insincere to the beauty of it's setting? Is it dishonest to Elio's subjective lens through which we experience the narrative in the first place? If as audience members we should be expected to view Call Me By Your Name as say a social-realist depiction of not only a relationship, but of it's European setting and the socio-political contexts of the early 1980s as well, then how would Guadagnino be intending for us to receive the musical interludes by Sufjan Stevens, a contemporary genre-defying songwriter? It was my understanding from the way through which the opening credit sequence introduces the film, that Guadagnino and by extension Ivory, invite their audience to indulge in an elevated revision of the time and the location, potentially to both reminisce along with Elio, as well as to inspect and interrogate the seemingly boundless freedom and mostly inconsequential expressions of the two leads. The film does not demand to be admired, though it very much is and perhaps a portion of the issues mentioned here may be best addressed to critics who praise it for an apparent flawless innocence and a liberal celebration that I personally did not recognise. There are certainly a number of problematic interactions which appropriately do not receive a sense of wholesome closure, such as where Marzia and Chiara are left to stand (more so the latter). To my understanding they are not meant to be rendered as any less problematic simply because the romance between Elio and Oliver is the more exciting one and ultimately the more affecting one. The shadows of the two women are left to linger like apparitions over relationship of the two men, since the audience members never truly receive a fulfilling resolution from them. It is possible to regard Marzia as a trustworthy friend for Elio, but after professing her adoration for him, the narrative allows for more of a melancholic reading of how their feelings would ultimately steer their relationship, as Elio's heart still belonged to Oliver. I was generally surprised with how little exposure this film received upon release (in the UK at least), despite of the powerful and meaningful nuances that made it one of the most sensitive films to come out during the past year. I'd also praise the film for its representation (and interpretation) of sexuality on the screen. Not to dismiss explicit sexual content on film as a whole, but it certainly seemed that Guadagnino struck an appropriate chord with how much he chose to capture on camera. In that respect Moonlight shares a relation here, considering how “tastefully” sexual acts can be presented when supporting a narrative. In Call Me By Your Name, I understood that the freedom of expression of sexuality was the primary focus of the narrative, as well as it's primary concern. With the joy of finding reciprocating admiration in one another, Elio and Oliver neglect or overlook other aspects of their lives, which the film's presentation is aptly used to express as much. The very durability of their relationship is seemingly disregarded as they focus on exploring their pleasures, leaving unfulfilled narrative voids and a crying Elio during the end credits, resting the authority of judgment and reflection back to the audience. It’s interesting how James Ivory’s style aligned closer with the more “drifting” fluidity of less conventional narratives despite being trained in the US, specifically at USC which is practically Hollywood's boot camp. Even Call Me By Your Name is a slight outlier for him since he mostly gained a reputation for adaptations of English period dramas, usually involving upper class patriarchs portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. I find it to be a very important collection and collaboration between talent, from the writer and the director to the cast and everyone in between. It’s really a rare treat (and a stroke of luck to some extent) to get a movie that is as well realised and as well executed as this. I would urge as many people to seek it out during this awards season, it deserves as much exposure as it can get.

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