Call Me By Your Name
“Call Me By Your Name has been marketed as a gay romance, yet less overt is its inclusion of Jewish culture.”
Title: Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Director: Luca Guadagnino 👨🏽🇮🇹🌈
Writers: Original novel by André Aciman 👨🏼🇮🇹🇺🇸🇪🇬 and screenplay by James Ivory 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
What a wonderful way to lose yourself in this melodic sigh of a film. The fragile, sun-bleached veneer of Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, based on a 2007 novel by the same name, hides iceberg-levels of depth, as sorrow, tension, hope, and joy broil just beneath the placid surface of smooth limestone and languid bike rides.
The film traces the relationship between the young Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s seasonal research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). While their story is touching, it’s also as effervescent as the summer romance it seeks to capture. It will slip from my mind, eventually, but for a moment I was fully in thrall.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, barely
Women flit about the edges of this summer dream but remain on the outside, looking in. They embody gender roles that are so traditional, they rather feel like afterthoughts. Granted, the film is set in 1983, but considering just how much cinema is set in the past these days, I feel disinclined to grade by retro standards.
The primary female characters are Elio’s mother, Annella (Amira Casar), and Elio’s friend, Marzia (Esther Garrel). Annella is the epitome of a well-bred housewife—graceful, educated, and the penultimate hostess. She is almost always seen during mealtimes and, unlike her husband, is never depicted away from their villa.
On her own, Annella is flat but problem-free. Marzia, however, is not so lucky. As a longtime friend who obviously has a crush on Elio, she is used as a device for him to sort his feelings out. The two have sex, and it’s the first time for either of them. But as soon as Elio captures the affection of Oliver, he tosses her aside, avoiding her for days. Oliver’s own sidepiece, too, is wooed, toyed with, then ditched. And finally, towards the end of the film, insult is added to injury: Marzia approaches Elio once more, simply to say that she forgives him. The exchange is entirely unnecessary—in fact, it doesn’t even appear in the original novel. What purpose does it serve, than, but to absolve Elio of his careless actions towards Marzia? With its addition, Guadagnino implies that men can use and dispose of women with no repercussions.
On the plus side, I do want to point out the lack of toxic masculinity in Call Me By Your Name. Elio and his father, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) have a great, close relationship. My favorite scene, in fact, involves a heart to heart in which Elio’s father imparts sage wisdom on the topic of love and life, in all its forms. The distinct lack of machismo—moreover, its heartfelt endorsement of vulnerability—is worth a bump in this category score.
There are no people of color in this film. It doesn’t ever feel out of place, as Call Me By Your Name takes place in the 1980s and in a remote village, literally “somewhere in northern Italy”, as its title card states. The fact that its racial makeup falls in line with its real-world setting—and that no damaging stereotypes are thus projected—garners it a point.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +1.00
The complex, nurturing romance between Elio and Oliver is the crux of this film, and it’s rendered in beautiful dimension and depth. Despite being a setup that could easily fall into formula—the gorgeous, older academic being seduced by a teenager on the cusp of sexual awakening—nothing about their personalities or the way they come together feels tropeish.
The film even works in a second LGBTQ couple. Two older men in what look to be their 50s—one of them a cameo by the original novelist, André Aciman—visit the villa and are warmly greeted by Elio’s parents. Their presence is fleeting, but further fleshes out the world that depicts multiple LGBTQ characters, even if all four of them are white men.
I do want to mention, however, that writer and drag comedienne Miz Cracker makes a fantastic point on Slate. She asks, “Why has Call Me by Your Name attained such an iconic ‘gay’ status when it is anything but?”, pointing out the straight author, straight actors, and the off-screening of gay scenes while heterosexual ones take place within frame. Ultimately, she looks inward and reflects on her own community’s reaction to the works:
“We love this sort of playful teasing from straight guys—the grinning suggestion that we might get a swat on the butt or a drunken cuddle as long as we don’t push it too far. So when we consume this film, we’re willing to call it a gay masterpiece without any of the usual demands, such as real gay actors playing realistic gay characters in some sort of gay cultural or historical context.”
Still, she concludes on a positive, if wistful note:
“Sure, it’s a primarily straight book, but it’s so breathtakingly beautiful that just to have it glance in our direction seems like enough.”
Bonus for Religion: +0.50
While Call Me By Your Name is touted as an LGBTQ romance, less overt is its inclusion of Jewish culture. The novelist, André Aciman, comes from a Sephardic Jewish family who fled Egypt in the 1960s, first to Italy, then to New York City. Given his background, it becomes less surprising that Judaism is gently threaded throughout his story.
One of the first things that piques Elio’s interest, in fact, is how unabashedly Oliver wears a Star of David pendant. When the two discuss it, Elio quotes his mother, who calls their family “Jews of discretion,” providing a textured contrast to the way Oliver outwardly presents as Jewish in a highly Catholic city. This common ground—and Elio’s fascination with Oliver’s self-assuredness—becomes a wonderfully understated yet integral facet of their relationship.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.42/5
This gorgeous, character-driven film focuses on a central relationship that feels no compulsion to draw women or people of color into its stable of complex characters. Regardless, I give the film a wholehearted recommendation. Who doesn’t want to spend an afternoon immersed in an idyllic tale of academia, culture, riverbank swims, and fervid romance?