The widely acclaimed Call Me by Your Name dares romanticize a youth-to-adult sexual relationship. It’s dressed-up as both nostalgia — set in 1983 — and Continental sophistication: Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) becomes obsessed with Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s 24-year-old research assistant who has joined the family’s summer retreat in Italy. But the dreamy, erotic story (languorous, sun-bright idylls, visual fetishes such as overripe fruit and wet swim trunks) has been queered by the film’s belated release, which, after its premiere last winter at the Sundance Festival, is strikingly mistimed.
Now this tale of first love (based on a novel by André Aciman) too closely resembles the taboo of unequal sexual relations currently driving our culture’s moment of neo-Puritanism. What was calculated to appeal to pro-gay social sentiment and rouse intense compassion for a youngster’s coming-out is now exposed as a dishonest, weepy fusion of lechery and virtue-signaling.
Elio, a skinny kid with a heart-shaped face, is a piano prodigy who prefers classical music to teenage pop; he begins his seduction of grad student Oliver, who looks like a country club’s tall carefree tennis pro, by competing with him intellectually. It’s a discreet version of pulling a schoolgirl’s pigtails, courtesy of the screenplay by James Ivory, director of the pompous literary adaptations A Room with a View, Maurice, and Howards End. Ivory’s own cache — an old-fashioned refinement of lust — disguises what is, essentially, Guadagnino’s porno-chic. (The film feels like a flashback but isn’t. By making Elio so precocious yet intense, with none of the usual adolescent banality, Guadagnino reveals he is more than a little in love with the memory of being jailbait.)
For conservatives who are susceptible to the blandishments of virtue-signaling in left-wing films, this high-class movie presents a problem: How do socially aware filmgoers reconcile their cultural interests with artistic pretense and social controversy? The film’s very title (a lover’s plea that begs for the rejoinder “ . . . and I’ll call you by mine”) conflates identity politics with innocence. Art-radical Guadagnino favors transgression while traditionalist Ivory sentimentalizes passion. Yet neither filmmaker explores the deep abandonment of ego that Jonathan Demme and Toni Morrison boldly dramatized in Beloved, when a woman says, “Put your finger inside me and call my name.”
At this moment of moral and sexual chaos, in which famous men are punished for aggressively acting on their sexual instinct, Call Me by Your Name oddly seems morally evasive.
At this moment of moral and sexual chaos, in which famous men are punished for aggressively acting on their sexual instinct — the same libidinous behavior idealized in countless ads and movies — Call Me by Your Name oddly seems morally evasive. It hedges around reckless behavior. Elio, who shows no interest in boys his age, sexually exploits a young Italian girl while Oliver neglects his heterosexual relations back home. The film plays with the idea of ethnic and class assimilation by pointlessly bringing up Elio’s envy of Oliver’s WASP-appearing Jewishness; then it offers strange, maudlin absolution for the story’s mess of sub rosa compulsions.
A climactic speech by Elio’s father signals approval of the intergenerational tryst: “You two had a nice friendship. You’re too smart not to know how special what you two had was.” This leering endorsement turns into a declaration:
When you least expect it, Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spots. . . . You had a beautiful friendship, maybe more than a friendship. . . . We go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we find someone new.
Few recent films have so bluntly proclaimed moral pessimism. This subtly envious dad recalls the confession of the pedophile father to his own son in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) — but unironically, so that the transgression partly set up by Elio’s enlightened parents is made complete and without guilt.
In the current Lady Bird, Chalamet, in contrast to his oversensitivity in Call Me by Your Name, portrays a pretentious, self-centered teenage lothario who deflowers the heroine and then callously advises, “You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.” This, at least, is a more honest admission of the progressive attitude that critics who praise Call Me By Your Name pretend to shrug off — while shedding tears of self-pity.
Call Me by Your Name ignores credible behavior and indulges in politicized, eroticized fantasy, just like last year’s Moonlight and the previous decade’s Brokeback Mountain. Those movies became cultural totems by promoting attitudes of gay pathos rather than acknowledging the common complexity of sexual relations. When Elio mocks an elderly male couple as “Sonny and Cher,” the father reprimands: “Is it because they’re ridiculous or because they’re gay?” This summarizes Guadagnino’s pop-culture sophistry, a self-congratulatory form of sophistication.
No doubt today’s sexual witch-hunters will justify praising this across-the-age-barrier romance by pointing to the film industry’s sanctimonious efforts to expunge the cultural presence of Kevin Spacey (based on allegations that he sexually assaulted several young men). Call Me by Your Name allows PC persecutors to enjoy the double standard of idealizing adolescent sexual impulse and ignoring it when convenient. It’s a love story for hypocrites.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.