First of all, I would like to say that I am by no means an expert on LGBTQIA cinema, nor can I relate to the experiences of such identifying persons. However, something I can say with the utmost confidence is that Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) is no Moonlight (2016). Moonlight is an absolute masterpiece, redefining the coming-of-age film with brilliant cinematography and writing that enshrines it as a benchmark of cinema. While Guadagnino’s Italian co-production certainly does enough to elevate itself above lesser fare with similar subject matter, it is held back; either by the lack of experience Guadagnino brings to a story like this (that crucial something that Barry Jenkins brought to Moonlight), or simply the story itself.
Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is your typical protagonist for a film like this. He’s a young, handsome man with plenty of friends his age who like him, living with his parents in an eternally sunny villa in the Italian countryside. He is talented musically (although the film seems to forget about this trait halfway through) and his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) works as a professor studying Greco-Roman antiquity. While he maintains good relationships with both his family and friends, he is visibly moody and at times distant, for which, to Guadagnino’s credit, a reason is never made immediately explicit. He’s not hooking up with older men he meets on a chat-roulette clone in the film’s opening, like the protagonist of Beach Rats (2017). Once Elio’s father hires his research intern for the summer, a perfect specimen of a man named Oliver (Armie Hammer), we figure out that Elio isn’t acting out just because he’s a teenager. He falls in love with Oliver at first sight and begins to pursue him. The two of them flirt back and forth for a while, and a romance soon develops.
The subtle execution of the story is certainly the most complimentary element of the film. We are never given characters that are stereotypes or defined simply by the fact that they’re gay. Much time and care is given to developing Elio and Oliver as people, and although some of these characteristics don’t play into the larger narrative of the story in any meaningful way, they act as just that: characteristics. Yes, the perpetually sun-kissed Italian countryside is a ridiculously perfect romance setting, but I still feel like I’m watching a lived-in world with real people interacting in realistic ways. The shot choices compliment this perfectly: a simple scene of teenagers and twenty-somethings partying in a club brims with romantic tension for Elio as he stands center frame next to Oliver, desperately trying to dance with him. The visual storytelling carries this film excellently, and it’s what makes such a simple narrative more entertaining and more interesting. It is also elevated by a lovely classical piano score that captures the mood perfectly, but this is interrupted by original songs that clash with the established tone. Perhaps this is a clumsy effort to vie for an original song nomination, but it comes off as jarring.
However, I don’t know if it is because of a personal bias or an actual problem with the movie, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that simplicity is what ultimately holds this movie back from being much more. I guess I’m more accustomed to that “Old Hollywood” style of romance, where two characters falling in love are a mere byproduct of the larger narrative – or at least not the “A” plot – which makes the union of the two characters feel more rewarding. Call Me By Your Name is very much of the more recent indie filmmaking school, in which the style is meant to emulate real life and characters just kind of do things in an attempt to make everything feel more natural. I’ll concede that the film makes this work to a degree… but… like… I’ve seen this before. I just do not care for this style of filmmaking. It gets in the way of actual character development and has the easiest built-in defense to someone expressing dissatisfaction: “well, that’s the point.” Sure, it’s the point, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. This is the huge downfall of this year’s earlier gay coming-of-age release Beach Rats, in which a privileged white kid in Brooklyn does nothing of consequence for 90ish minutes.
Call Me By Your Name at least doesn’t bank on this style until the second half of the film. I think I feel so dissatisfied because we are left not knowing Oliver well enough. Throughout the first half of the movie he is very smart, friendly, charming, and he hides his homosexuality by physically engaging with other women. He is initially resistant to Elio’s advances, presumably because he doesn’t want to take advantage of the situation, and he makes sure Elio’s feelings are legitimate, but you can tell that Oliver is hesitant to fully embrace his own homosexuality. We are never given any satisfying conclusion to Oliver’s internal arc; it is put in the back seat, or rather the trunk, to make room for the swell of honeymoon-phase-feelings and constant sexual exploration (which is less displayed on-camera because we are not dealing with two gay women, let’s be honest).
The first half of the film is very exciting, as we can all remember how giddy we were when we were teenagers trying to land that infatuation that, to us, embodied everything good and beautiful about people. When Elio and Oliver finally do get together it is satisfying, but then all they do is spend time together, and it seems that the exploration of who they are comes to a halt as we celebrate their love while the people around them do the same with quiet jubilee. Only at the film’s climax does this reverse; the summer finally ends and Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a monologue that makes the less-involved second half seem all the more worth it.
I can concede that Guadagnino did something special by making this movie. He certainly elevates a very simple story of summer love and sexual exploration into the higher echelons of independent filmmaking with something visually engaging, and he makes a push to normalize this kind of romance for the mainstream (I saw this film in a very high-traffic NYC theater). However, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the theater who thought the age gap between the two characters a bit concerning. The age of Hammer’s older-looking character is never established in the film, but we do know that Elio is 17 despite looking younger, and there is a ten-year difference (31 vs 21) between the actors. However, some of the interactions between the two of them – with a very thirsty Elio attempting to seduce Oliver but Oliver resisting and making sure that Elio knows what he’s doing, etc – remind me of the most recent (and hopefully the last) Woody Allen film I saw: Irrational Man (2015). Now granted, the age gap in that film is much larger and significantly more problematic since it’s about a student and a professor falling in love, but the interactions between the older and younger parties in both films are strikingly similar. I found out later Oliver is 24, but I could not help make this uneasy comparison as their relationship evolved. This is somewhat justified thematically with the film’s invocation of ancient Greece, which infamously considered relationships between men and young boys a normal part of induction into society, but the times have certainly changed.
Call Me By Your Name is a film about intimacy and, in that regard, gets its message across well enough. It’s a plenty enjoyable film with a lot of escapist value in its setting and in the premise of budding young love through self-discovery. It’s a very well shot film full of great visual storytelling, but in focusing singularly on the romance between the two leads, we lose sight of who they are as people, and ultimately the film feels lacking.