Kimberly and Jane agree to disagree about the emotional context of a film to be celebrated for its importance as a breakthrough coming of age story about a sexually blossoming gay teenager.
Call Me By Your Name stands out as a candid, autobiographically inspired*, coming of age film of a young gay man. Elio, the talented 17-year-old son of an archeologist, is spending time with his family at their picturesque villa in northern Italy. When Oliver, a handsome American doctoral student arrives to intern with Elio’s father, he sets heads turning. In the sun-drenched splendor of an Italian fairy tale setting, Elio and Oliver circle one another and transform Elio’s awakening sexual desires into a summer to remember.
I absolutely loved it.
And me, not so much. So let’s see what we have to say. I had looked forward to seeing this film about a young gay coming of age and was disappointed to see such an immature presentation of a rather complicated infatuation. Also, to be frank, I found the film a little disturbing.
Therein lies a point of contention.
So let’s start with what you liked.
Well, I am always drawn to these romantic, lazy summer tales where regular life stops for a season and the potential for all kinds of new adventures, liaisons, and transformations simmer beneath a sensual sun. Do you remember the erotic thriller Swimming Pool about the woman who rents a villa and finds herself going through an awakening as she covertly watches the actions of a young nymphet?
Ah, Kimberly, you have a way of shifting my perspective. Of course, summers are like that, especially when we’re young. So, yes, definitely, I enjoyed the extra cache of Call Me By Your Name as a romantic Italian escape film. But, that said, in Swimming Pool, it was the older woman reviving herself with voyeuristic fantasies. Maybe it would be different being a gay viewer? You mentioned that the title was a gay reference to the fact that gay men often participate in a “mirroring” of each other, which suggests by definition that it’s aimed at a gay audience. Not knowing this, I was confused, especially when Elio and Oliver don’t call each other by the other’s name. But, getting to my discomfort, I couldn’t help thinking about the exploitation of a young teen boy-man as I would with a girl-woman.
I didn’t get a vibe of exploitation. I felt like we were watching this very intellectual, free, and well-parented young man go through his sexual awakening in a very unapologetic European fashion. Being a woman, it piqued my curiosity about the gay male experience and caused me to want to open up a piece of my brain to see it for both its differences and its similarities. Still, I get your point. It also made me realize that if this film were about a young girl and an older man, we might cry Lolita! And if it were about an older woman and a younger man, we might cry inappropriate.
Yes, it’s hard to get away from age differences in love stories. All the more reason such a script has to be handled well enough that it’s not a distraction. Even though at their core, all love stories are universal in that they are about two people falling in love, we tend to apply an overlay of Judeo-Christian religiosity to the stories when they involve a young girl who loses her virginity. If this were about a young girl, it might have been pigeonholed into a tale of violation by an older, indifferent interloper out for a summer fling.
Yet for Elio, the whole film is a validation of his bloom. He’s lucky. And not in the way of men always being afforded this rite of passage without question, but also in the way of coming out within a supportive atmosphere.
I can understand getting caught up in the film’s great affirmation of Elio’s bloom. But I wasn’t even sure he was gay. When Oliver first touched him, massaged him playfully on the shoulders, Elio shrugged him off. And all the while, Oliver was very busy enticing the young women of the village. Then we see Elio having sex with a girl and then we see him masturbate with a peach. Then his humiliation when Oliver made fun of him. It seemed like he was in a period of agitated sexual experimentation and a little too vulnerable to an offhandedly confident American so sure of himself that he could be so rude to all around him.
I saw those things differently. When Oliver first touches Elio, it is in public, in front of family and friends, and I don’t think Elio was yet at the point of being comfortable being himself sexually, or coming out. To my eyes, or your eyes, or the parental eyes, this touch would’ve seemed platonic, or friendly, or meaningless, but to a person who is coming to terms with the fact that they might be gay, it is a totally internalized process at first and fear of reactions, or fall out, and of shame are all par for the course. I experienced this myself when I dated the one woman I ever had a relationship with.
I see that. But it also seems a little like you’re agreeing with me that this kind of interaction can lead to misunderstanding and needs to be handled with care and clarity. The peach scene also very much reminds me of the fig scene in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. The fig is unmistakably a stand-in for the vagina – no chance with Ken Russell for confusion.
I think Elio finally has sex with his female friend, who has been pursuing him for quite a while fruitlessly because he is deeply in lust with Oliver and she provides a convenient release. When Oliver finally starts showing reciprocal interest, Elio stops seeing her with a nonchalance that proved that point to me. Now for the peach scene, the peach was so clearly a resemblance of the anus—I didn’t feel it was merely a masturbatory tool, but a need to re-experience this new act of sex that he had just been introduced to. I recall those young days of being so infatuated with a person, that I would spend hours reliving every moment of our sex and falling into a kind of masturbatory fog. Like in another of our favorite films, Secretary, when Maggie Gyllenhaal can’t stop masturbating to the thought of James Spader telling her how many peas she was allowed to eat for dinner.
Elio using the girl for release? They did seem to like one another. I go for confusion here or experimentation. Yes to Secretary, another well-done film. In particular, the erotic obsession was handled with a lot of care.
I stand by the “girl for release” theory. For example, think of the film Lady Bird. Lady Bird’s first love is Danny, a closeted gay. He initiates their first kiss, tells her he loves her, but all the while is kissing other boys in bathroom stalls. I think it’s common for “in the closet” young gay men to try to try to be with women until they are resolved with their true sexual identity and oftentimes the most comfortable way to do this is with females who are their good friends.
Moving on to a more relationship, emotional issue, I was most unclear as to how this young, soulful Italian teen could be drawn to this arrogant American who was an asshole to everyone. Does he think he’s a ‘real’ man? Personally, it took me a lot of years to stop seeing men who are distant and detached as being desirable. As little girls, we are conditioned to believe that men being mean and loving somehow go together. We need to evolve out that and so do men.
I felt the same way as you did about that at first. Although in the film, they were making it look like all kinds of people found this Oliver dashing—the parents and the girl he danced with and who pursued him. When I asked a gay male friend about this, he mentioned it was his Americanism, his difference. The difference was strong enough to spark Elio’s curiosity. I can understand that. I mean, especially when in this young space of inexperienced bloom, the foreign oftentimes is what catches our eye. But I also wonder if it was because he was also safe, he would leave. At first, perhaps Elio thought this would be a good source of initiation away from his friends—another tiptoe out of the closet rather than a loud announcement. Like he was testing the waters. Plus, my gay friend mentioned the mind games they seemingly played with each other at first—another way to understand the struggles of two men who were stepping into the “taboo” without a map, and neither entirely comfortable with doing so.
Interesting, I thought Elio was genuinely in love with Oliver and Oliver knew all along that he was not all that interested in Elio. He flicks him off at the end of the summer and disappears. Later, of course, we find out that Oliver is not an identified gay man. And sticking to his lack of empathy modus operandi, he lets Elio know in a phone call that he’s getting married! I also had some problems with the way the film handled the sexuality between the two men. Elio was like a leaping child, playful and tortured all the time, throwing himself at Oliver. It’s hard to watch erotic scenes when it’s so clear that one man is being so explicitly exploited. Uh oh, I’m back to that word. I have seen gay male relationships with an imbalance of attraction handled in films with more sensitivity, especially when there’s an age difference.
Which brings me to something that I am now understanding through our discussion. That some first loves aren’t always erotic, but clunky, and awkward, and infused with insecurity. Can you imagine going through all of that with the fear of claiming yourself as gay on top of that? I mean, we as viewers clearly see that Elio is in a supportive atmosphere but when I talk to my gay friends, they tell me that it didn’t matter for them if they were in a supportive atmosphere or not, it was more commonly treacherous to have this first moment with someone else that would stamp them gay, force them to own it.
Well, not to press a point but it’s the film’s awkward handling, not the young men’s handling of awkward feelings that I’m having trouble with. By comparison, we saw similar awkwardness handled very sensitively in Lady Bird. This brings to mind the one moment of the film that I did really connect with—the scene in which the father, surprisingly I might add because he has nothing else to say, delivers a tender monologue of acceptance to his young son. “You had a beautiful friendship,” Mr. Perlman tells Elio. “Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is a pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!” Pretty powerful and something a lot of young women would also like to hear from their fathers.
That to me is what makes this entire film so important. It is what makes it not only a love story but also a story about family, and a story about acceptance. It is what I would hope a parent of anyone, regardless of sexual identity, would express to his or her child. I know gay men are thrilled, regardless of whether they personally enjoyed the movie, that this made it to the big screen and that has garnered Oscar notice. For me, though, I think I have learned through this conversation, that I love the film for its universal message about becoming who you are, and not being afraid to live your life passionately because there is only one you’ve got, even if that means having unexplainable attractions or interacting in circumstances where happiness is not always guaranteed. That message is universal, but it is about time a story about gay men got to deliver it in a widespread fashion. Maybe that trumped any flaws that you pointed out were evident—I may be guilty of loving the story too much over the presentation of it as a film. Sometimes that happens. It’s the writer in me.
Well, in that spirit, I agree, what’s not to like about two films bringing the non-stereotypical coming of age stories to the big screen in the same year. Still, in the end, I don’t like the presentation of a gay coming of age in a masochistic relationship sugar-coated in the beauty of Italy in which the audience, with one isolated soliloquy, is asked to value the sweetness of feeling alive and ignore the bitterness of being tricked.
*Call Me by Your Name is a 2007 novel by André Aciman