Sex on the silver screen: A celebratory exploration of self and film in ‘Call Me by Your Name’

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 5:23pm

Sony Pictures Classics

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“Call Me by Your Name” (Luca Guadagnino, “Suspira”) became an instant sensation following its release in 2017, and for good reason. The film is rich with sentimentality. Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, “Lady Bird”) spends the summer at his family’s villa in the north of Italy. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg, “The Shape of Water”), an archaeologist, is joined by an intern each summer who boards with the family. This particular summer, the intern is Oliver (Armie Hammer, “On the Basis of Sex”), a 24-year-old grad student. Throughout the beautiful and warm Italian summer, the two fall in love.

The cinematography is fluid and intentional but doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Call Me by Your Name” isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. The dialogue is clearly scripted, though in a soapy way. The characters stay true to the medium and faithful to the screenwriter’s adaptation. Perhaps it is due to the adapted nature of the screenplay that it shines through the visual.

The film is everything a film should be. No special effects, temporal discontinuities, unbelievable storylines or deceptive cinematography. It is a film about honesty with oneself and with one’s lovers. The romance in “Call Me by Your Name” is predicated upon truthful camera work. The camera is not intrusive; its presence doesn’t disrupt the scene, but it could. The viewer is inserted into the rooms and balconies and rivers where romance develops, drawn into an idyllic setting, privy to secrets of passion. Take for example Oliver and Elio’s consummatory sex scene. The camera pans strategically to give the couple privacy, as though you might’ve felt guilty or voyeuristic had you taken advantage of your insider position and watched for a little too long.

The film’s honesty is an important foundation upon which the sexual playfulness is built. With the camera as viewer and the actor as deliverer, this film simultaneously enforces the truths of the medium while inviting the viewer to experience these truths firsthand.

Upon their introduction, stone fruits and their juices seem mere symbols. Peaches have long been unsurprising literary symbols of sex and fertility. Sticky and sweet, the peach has always felt to me almost too straightforward to wield any symbolic power — until Guadagnino addressed and solved this problem.

Following the earlier logic, that “Call Me” is true to film as medium while developing new relationships between the elements therein, we see the peach exceed its symbolic role and take physical presence in the film. In a powerful display of tactile eroticism and primal arousal, Elio penetrates a peach while he masturbates. The incorporation of sound and texture, the layered symbolism of peach as penetrable orifice and juice as ejaculate: This scene resonates as the purest synchronization of literature and film. Here, the line between symbol and participant is suddenly blurred, not unlike the line between viewer and participant.

The relationship that develops between Oliver and Elio is gently passionate, playful and wholehearted. However, homophobia lies at the root of much of their mixed and missed signals in the beginning of the film. It is addressed a few times by Oliver, noting consideration of his public image as well as voicing concern that he might be damaging Elio psychosexually.

The point is revisited later in the film, after Oliver’s departure, when Elio’s father urges his son not to shy away from even the most unpleasant feelings, for denying oneself pain requires one to also deny pleasure. Elio’s father tells his son that he too may have had the seeds of romance with men in his past, but never had the courage to face the pain for the pleasure. The internalized homophobia present in “Call Me” is a potent reminder of the pressure and fear faced by millions of LGBTQ+ individuals daily. The film doesn’t show the violence or bullying or unkind words, but rather the internalization of societal discrimination. Those internalized feelings are something I have no first-hand experience with, though “Call Me” makes them accessible to individuals like myself who do not identify as queer. This accessibility is admirable on the part of screenwriter James Ivory (“The Remains of the Day”), Hammer and Chalamet.

Here, a homosexual experience is not glorified or demeaned — it is presented frankly. Sure, the playful flirtation is erotic, but it’s believable and relatable. Sex is a part of a greater whole: an intellectual self-exploration, literary symbolism, homosexuality and repression. “Call Me” is a coming-of-age film, but just for Elio — not for you. The viewer is afforded all sorts of privileges, like honesty and an inoffensive, participatory gaze. At the same time, the screenplay remains sacred, and the experiences afforded to the characters therein are not to be co-opted by the viewer. Learn from Oliver and Elio, love Oliver and Elio, but respect the autonomy given to Oliver and Elio by Guadagnino and his faithfulness to film as medium.

“Call Me by Your Name” is an exploration of maturity, literature and homosexuality. The film is celebratory, gentle, emotionally rich and cast in the sweet hazy glow of memory. We would all be wise to follow the advice given to Elio by his father: “Feel it all. We learn about ourselves by indulgence in our feelings; do not prevent self-exploration by numbing oneself to the highs and lows.