“Call Me By Your Name,” which was adapted from a 2007 novel, directed by Italian director Luca Guadagnino, promises to pander to audiences with its premise of a gay love story, a theme that has yet to be fully developed in American cinema. But in reality, only the mesmerizing aesthetics of the film might move theatergoers; barren character development and dialogue renders its emotional content fruitless.
The film’s protagonist is Elio — played by Timothée Chalamet — a musically prodigious and multilingual 17-year-old boy who is spending the summer holiday with his parents at their countryside villa in an idyllic northern Italian town. His life appears to be perfect, which the cinematography shows; the camera guides viewers through languid summer days under the Mediterranean sun, which he spends riding bikes through the pristine town and its pastoral environs and swimming in aquamarine pools with gorgeous Italian- and French-speaking friends. The affluent, summery look of the film largely references that of Vittorio De Sica’s 1971 classic, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” This all changes, perhaps to the downfall of both Elio and the film as a whole, with the arrival of 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), the visiting American assistant to his father, a scholar of archaeology.
At first Elio resents Oliver — for occupying his room, seducing his girl friends and winning over his parents’ affection. But he soon becomes infatuated with the equally intelligent and attractive foreigner, frantically scribbling love notes in his journal and sneaking into Oliver’s room to masturbate to the scent of his swim trunks. He eventually gains the courage to quietly profess his attraction to Oliver in the town square. Though Oliver is initially reluctant for the sake of discretion, he reciprocates and they begin an intense sexual relationship, even though Elio conducts affairs with girl friends all the while.
The sensation that Guadagnino thrusts to the forefront of the film is that of hedonism, illustrated by the episode in which a bored Elio innovatively uses a deseeded peach to pleasure himself to the point of ejaculation, the remnants of which are later discovered by a delighted Oliver. But the film does not bear such fruits, not even the normal kind. For all the richness in the soundtrack, which features Sufjan Stevens, and the visuals masterfully shot in 35mm film, there is no emotional content to the film. Elio cries when Oliver inevitably leaves at summer’s end, but it is difficult for the viewer to empathize with a character whose inner thoughts are never revealed, regarding a romance with emotional complexities that are never revealed. It’s a mystery as to why Elio loves Oliver so deeply in the first place. It is also unclear why they call each other by their own respective names, the film’s eponymous conceit. While Elio’s father expresses his acceptance of his son’s first love in a moving speech, it’s too late for the viewer to care. Maybe what the film lacks is a grounding in any real hardship, but that apparently would not exist for a gay couple of somewhat disparate ages in a small town in Italy in the ’80s.
At its best, the film is beautiful but dull. The inimitable, Instagram-reminiscent aesthetics relegate any space in the film for explaining the intricacies of Elio and Oliver’s desire for each other to close-ups of butts and six-packs. At worst, the movie risks misrepresenting many facets of gay love to American audiences, many of whom are viewing it on screen for the first time. The narrative centers around two main characters who are hyper-attractive, privileged white people. Even more problematic is how Guadagnino explicitly relates the pair’s romance to the ancient Roman practice of pederasty — the type of love between an adult man and his younger companion, which repeatedly appears in the artifacts of Elio’s father and Oliver’s archaeological work. This certainly does not help deflect the many enduring claims of gay men as predatory.
The film marks — in many critics’ summations — Guadagnino’s big break into American cinemas and audiences. By combining many tropes of his previous films — which range from beautiful European settings to polemical displays of romance — Guadagnino effectively caters to American viewers’ appetite for vapidity, betraying any essence of emotional substance to concentrate on aesthetics. It begs the question of how to portray intimacy on screen, especially between individuals of queer identities. Unlike “Moonlight,” a truly pioneering film in its delicately profound and insightful depiction of growing up queer and its romantic trials, “Call Me By Your Name” presents gay desire as an empty pursuit comprised of nothing beyond good looks and shallow intellectual fodder. Ultimately, the film and its characters look too good to be true.