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The Current Debate: The Excessive Perfection of "Call Me By Your Name"

Luca Guadagnino’s critical darling desires only to be desired.
Jacob Paul
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name appears to be well on its way to box office and awards success, having earned both this year’s best opening weekend among limited releases and a Best Picture award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The film is about an affair between Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious teenager, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the graduate student who comes to Italy to assist Elio’s father in the summer of 1983. Like 2015’s A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino’s latest features lots of pretty images of beautiful people doing luxurious things, but, as Manohla Dargis contends at The New York Times, it has more than that to offer:
Even so, the lyricism seduces as does fragile, ecstatic Elio. “Call Me by Your Name” is less a coming-of-age story, a tale of innocence and loss, than one about coming into sensibility. In that way, it is about the creation of a new man who, the story suggests, is liberated by pleasure that doesn’t necessarily establish sexual identity. It’s important that Elio and Oliver have relationships with women, though for seemingly different reasons: the overheated Elio sleeps with a girlfriend (Esther Garrel), while Oliver carries on a more performative affair with a local (Victoire Du Bois). The women are not treated with much kindness, but these affairs further complicate the movie’s vision of pleasure’s fluidity.
This notion is echoed by Anthony Lane at The New Yorker, who adds that the effect is to distinguish this story from the typically label-oriented politics of sexuality:
By falling for each other, Oliver and Elio tumble not into error, still less into sin, but into a sort of delirious concord, which may explain why Elio’s parents, far from disapproving, bestow their tacit blessing on the pact. More unusual still is that the movie steers away from the politics of sexuality. Elio makes love to Marzia, on a dusty mattress, in a loft like an old dovecote, only hours before he meets with Oliver at midnight, but you don’t think, Oh, Elio’s having straight sex, followed by gay sex, and therefore we must rank him as bi-curious. Rather, you are curious about him and his paramours as individuals—these particular bodies, with these hungry souls, at these ravening moments in their lives. Desire is passed around the movie like a dish, and the characters are invited to help themselves, each to his or her own taste. Maybe a true love story (and when did you last see one of those?) has no time for types.
Yet this apparent freedom from politics and labels, while refreshing on its surface, comes at a cost. As K. Austin Collins writes at The Ringer, the film largely glosses over the political contexts that might have darkened its rose-colored glasses:
Guadagnino’s film is wonderful and, in fact, radical for exploring queer coming of age with the empathy and curiosity that it does. But it elides contexts that might have complicated the warmth of its morality. The film is set in 1982, and Oliver is American: His Reagan-era charm butts up against the newfound queerness of a man growing up in Europe. Worlds of context and subtext open up even there, but the film rushes past them. It treats their initial sexual encounters like well-earned consummations of desire — which, in a way, they are. But its brief gestures toward a broader, more dangerous world raise questions the movie knowingly does not answer. The movie is a safe space; I love it, but I’m not sure it ought to be.
Indeed, the safe space is practically a vacuum, and political context is not all that is lost to it. At The New Yorker, Richard Brody argues that the film lacks—to an untenable degree—meaningful details about the characters whose happiness it so wishes to celebrate:
What their romantic lives have been like prior to their meeting, they never say. Is Oliver the first man with whom Elio has had an intimate relationship? Has Elio been able to acknowledge, even to himself, his attraction to other men, or is the awakening of desire for a male a new experience for him? What about for Oliver? Though Elio and Oliver are also involved with women in the course of the summer, they don't ever discuss their erotic histories, their desires, their inhibitions, their hesitations, their joys, their heartbreaks. They're the most tacit of friends and the most silent of lovers-or, rather, in all likelihood they're voluble and free-spoken, as intellectually and personally and verbally intimate as they are physically intimate, as passionate about their love lives as about the intellectual fires that drive them onward-but the movie doesn't show them sharing these things. Guadagnino can't be bothered to imagine (or to urge Ivory to imagine) what they might actually talk about while sitting together alone. Scenes deliver some useful information to push the plot ahead and then cut out just as they get rolling, because Guadagnino displays no interest in the characters, only in the story.
While I agree, I don’t think the fine-grained distinction between characters and story quite measures the film’s weak punch. Jonathan Romney, at Film Comment, comes closer:
But the biggest problem for me is the way that the film’s aesthetic perfection militates against its emotional charge (although I know many viewers won’t agree). The world depicted here is so glossily perfect that this feels like a film less about life than about lifestyle—not unlike a similar long-hot-Italian-summer movie, Stealing Beauty by Bertolucci (the subject of a 2013 documentary by Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano). What Guadagnino mounts for us is an extended ravishment in an entirely ravishing world. Yet the characters’ beauty and intellectual perfection is so consummate that I couldn’t entirely believe that these people actually had genitals—that they could ever sweat or incur sunburn. Those splashes of sperm must have come from somewhere, though, unless they’re just the juice of a highly exclusive and refined strain of Lombardy peach.
Had the film’s aesthetic perfection been limited to its visual execution, and not gone so far as to efface its characters, Call Me By Your Name might have been quite a wonderful film. (A Bigger Splash is, in my opinion, nearly so.) The one we have has it merits, but I’m hoping those calling it Guadagnino’s masterpiece are swiftly proven wrong by his next.
***
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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