Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is a romance set in an opulent Italian summer getaway, and the film doesn’t let you forget it. The movie is drenched with sunlight and filled with extravagant feasts and lavish pieces of art. It’s a world where what is ostensibly the work at hand, archaeology research, blends into an evening swim and a drink.

This serene paradise serves as the backdrop for the summer affair that develops between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s annual visiting summer graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer). It's a gorgeous film, centered on two strong performances. But for a movie about the value, and cost, of passionate relationships, Call Me By Your Name indulges more in the splendor of its setting than in showcasing true romantic passion on screen.

The film begins with Oliver’s arrival, and Elio showing him the ropes. It’s clearly a routine Elio has gone through with grad students of summers past, and he’s pretty blasé about the whole experience. Elio explains to Oliver that he spends his summers reading and transcribing music; for someone living in paradise, he’s pretty much used to it all.

For Oliver, though, this Italian utopia is completely new, and he voraciously consumes everything he can. Whether he is aggressively cracking an egg, chugging juice, or dancing with strangers, Oliver’s mode of operation is consumption.

These attitudes parallel the dynamic that develops between Oliver and Elio. Oliver is not in a relationship with Elio so much as he consumes one. It’s akin to a Snapchat story: by seducing Elio, Oliver can mark off another experience for the summer: I did this. This is not to say that Oliver feels nothing for Elio; he likely does. But any feelings he has are imbued with a sense that this romance is just something he is trying on for size.

Elio, though, experiences the relationship in an entirely different way. A departure from the usual summer routine, his affair with Oliver is unfamiliar, exciting, and confusing for him. This puts Elio in a much more vulnerable position when the relationship, and the summer, inevitably end. Chalamet has a striking ability to capture a combination of passivity, strength, and vulnerability in a single moment; it’s truly a star-making performance.

I wish Call Me By Your Name had taken the time to explore, or even consider, the ethical ramifications of Oliver and Elio’s relationship. The affection is clearly mutual between the two, but the power dynamic is not equal. Seeing Elio’s body on screen compared to Oliver’s, and the immaturity of Elio’s sexual behavior, makes it clear that we are observing a relationship between a man and an adolescent. Unfortunately, the film is too busy inviting you to indulge in its beauty to reckon with this power imbalance.

Where the film ultimately lands is a familiar question, laid pretty on-the-nose by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg): is it worth it to have experienced passion, even accompanied by pain? Or is it better to never have felt that passion at all? What makes Call Me By Your Name so uniquely rewarding is not that it asks this question, but that it provides a complicated answer.

Set during a snowy, gray afternoon, the final scene is every bit the opposite of the summer’s grandeur. Upon receiving some painful news about Oliver, the film closes on a long take of Elio staring, sobbing, into the fireplace. But does this pain mean the affair wasn’t worth it? Or that it was? Thankfully, the film leaves this as an open question.

It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the passionless tone of the movie undercuts the power of this final moment. Amid all the lush Italian scenery, director Luca Guadagnino neglects to fully develop the relationship at hand. Was the passion of Elio’s affair with Oliver worth the pain? It’s hard to say, because I didn’t really see a truly passionate relationship on screen.

3.5/4 stars