Call Me by Your Name
When “Making Love” was released in 1982, that film about a same-sex romance was heralded as a daring step forward in film because it brought gay love further out of the Hollywood closet.
But a friend of mine, a gay critic, said he couldn’t truly celebrate a film about gay love until people stopped calling it “a gay love story” and just called it a love story.
In other words, so long as such films continue to seem daring and unusual, gay love will not have been normalized. That same principle applies to other identity issues as well: When we applaud an accomplishment by a woman or by a minority, we call attention to the fact that it’s not an equal playing field.
Now, 36 years later, cinema -- like our culture in general -- seems closer to accepting gay romances as love stories rather than as gay love stories.
“Call Me by Your Name” feels like another milestone along the path toward a more fully inclusive media.
Set in 1983, “Call Me” is a simple love story about Elio, 17-year-old Italian boy, and Oliver, a 24-year-old grad student. Oliver spends the summer at Elio’s house in Italy working on an academic project with Elio’s father, a professor of archeology.
The relationship progresses tentatively, before both Elio and Oliver release the brakes and ride their bicycles down the Italian hills at full speed.
Elio is a prodigy who takes breaks from inhaling books to play the piano. But Elio is a shy kid and socially awkward. He has a girlfriend who sometimes can’t help laughing at his clumsy and self-conscious attempts at romance.
Oliver, by contrast, is a handsome, outgoing man whose confidence borders on arrogance. Elio and Oliver are the proverbial odd couple, most unlikely lovers.
Surprisingly, Elio makes the first move, a subtle suggestion while walking around town. Oliver responds in a curious manner, probing to see what’s on Elio’s mind and in his heart. When Elio’s passion becomes apparent, Oliver firmly but lovingly tells Elio they best not go on this journey.
The beauty of “Call Me by Your Name” is the script, co-written by James Ivory, which focuses on small epiphanies – crossroads where both men make hard choices, and then second-guess themselves.
For me, the movie’s power is greatly magnified by the portrayal of Elio’s parents. This is a loving family, as illustrated in one tender scene where mom, dad and son are relaxing on a couch. Elio’s head lays in his mom’s lap as she reads a story aloud, affectionately touching her son’s hair.
In the end, as the summer runs out, dad has a long talk with Elio about loving and losing, about whether to take risks in life or to play it safe. The dad encourages his son to relish the time in life when love can be embraced without filters or worries. Later, he reasons, we tend to shy away from such deep immersion.
Elio listens with tears, soaking up every word. He realizes he’s being totally confirmed by his dad, without judgment. Dad simply says he trusts his son, and will embrace any path Elio might choose to walk in life.
In that quiet talk, we realize what it takes for a young gay son or daughter to grow up healthy and whole: unconditional love from the parents. “Call Me” is a portrait of exemplary parenting as much as it is a portrait of a young gay man discovering who he is.
“Call Me by Your Name” has been deservedly nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Timothee Chalamet as Elio) and it may well win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The story was drawn from a 2007 novel by New York professor André Aciman.
The film is multi-lingual with diverse languages and accents flowing through the air as if we were in the Amsterdam airport. The central language is English, but we are treated to subtitles when the cast slips into Italian, or French or German.
This film is the final entry in what Italian director Luca Guadagnino has called his “trilogy of desire.” The first two films were “I Am Love,” 2010, and “A Bigger Splash” (2015). I have seen neither, but am eager to watch both.
“Call Me by Your Name” confidently and intimately presents this love story without worrying about upsetting the tender hetero-sensibilities of moviegoers. Modest moviegoers best beware.
Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the coded gay love stories submerged inside mainstream media.
But, of course, we’ve not come far enough.
Sadly, society as a whole still too often defines itself as quite white and quite straight. So, we dare not let our guard down as those who are neither white nor straight try to walk, to live and to love safely among us.