'Call Me by Your Name' Is the Straightest Gay Movie Ever

What would happen if all gay teens discovered their sexuality without a conflict with family and social milieu? 'Call Me by Your Name' depicts such a scenario – and it’s pretty dull

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in 'Call Me by Your Name.'
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in 'Call Me by Your Name.'Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

How juicy the peaches in Italy are. How translucent the water. And the light – so radiant. The trees, verdant. In Italy everything is so gorgeous that even the tourists look harmonious. They don’t walk around with fanny packs and cameras, like tourists usually do. They sit among the locals in the small café, chatting with them in Italian and playing cards with them, as though they’d been born here. The rest of the time, they wander half-naked between the trees, like magnificent lithe animals. No, they aren’t tourists at all, they’re a natural element of the local flora and fauna, bronzed summer people who show up every year, splashing around in the streams and squeezing fresh juice from the apricots. Among them a youth springs up, like another fruit on the peach tree, desires budding in his psyche. Completely natural desires, of course, for how could there be anything unnatural in a marvelous place like Italy?

That youth, Elio, the protagonist of the film “Call Me By Your Name,” is beautiful and tanned, speaks three-four languages and composes on piano and guitar. His parents love him, nature loves him – loves him so much that it arranges for a mature man to teach him what love is. That, in general lines, is the guiding principle of “Call Me By Your Name,” the most discussed gay movie in a long time.

Everything that happens in the film comes about completely naturally, or so it appears. Elio loses his virginity to a girl but discovers that he’s actually hot for Oliver, his father’s assistant for the summer, who writes articles about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Greeks. He seduces him, and although Oliver makes an effort to quell the vortex of passion – he’s a good, decent guy – ultimately he gets caught up in it. They kiss in the lush meadow, and afterward make love. It’s all rapturous, truly rapturous, and Elio really is a delightful kid – intelligent but clumsy in the proper degree.

At this stage in classic melodramas, a force that would sever the love of the two, or even end the life of one of them, would appear. But in the idyll of “Call Me By Your Name” there is no death and no fate. The only thing that can happen is that the vacation concludes, and Oliver has to go back home to America. In nature, too, the birds need to leave as summer fades, and migrate across the sea.

Of course, a small provocation is embedded in the story. Elio is an adolescent and Oliver is a somewhat older man – he’s meant to be around 24 but looks as though he’s in his thirties. In the spirit of the present time, a type of scandal was to be expected, or at least a moral dilemma that could be discussed in some symposium on ethics. But because everyone loves Oliver and everyone loves Elio and everyone loves their love, the scandal doesn’t really happen.

Scandals occur because of society’s hypocrisy, but if the society is tolerant and void of hypocrisy, scandals peter out, too. Everyone in this movie is as beautiful and sweet as an unflawed peach. The children are lovely and good, but the parents are even better. One can only imagine how cute grandpa would have been if he’d made it into the script.

A well-known allegation was traditionally made about films dealing with homosexual love: for years, when an affair between two men was depicted on the screen, one of the two had to die, as a kind of punishment for sinning against nature. “Call Me By Your Name” is a film of our time, an era in which no one is punished for his pure love. It’s truly wonderful that young LGBT people are getting uncompromising support from their parents. But there’s something discomfiting about an attempt to portray even the past in this film – in this case, the early 1980s – as though it was harmonious and free of conflicts.

Because, in the end, even the best and most accommodating families, sexual initiation must include a certain element of departure from harmony. That’s true of straight kids, and certainly of gay ones. Childhood is over. Not everything can remain on the same track. If mom and dad were to organize our first lay, or at least create the perfect conditions for it to take place, there would be a smidgeon of incest in that. A case in point: Louis Malle’s 1971 film “Murmur of the Heart,” in which the teen undergoes sexual initiation, but in the end finds himself sleeping with his utterly charming mother. But “Call Me By Your Name” totally avoids even a hint of anything improper. Everything is proper, natural – too natural.

Tranquility and fraternity

The inter-age relationship is also accommodated thanks to the presence of the Greek heritage in the film. Elio’s father is an archaeologist, an expert on classical sculpture. Statues of the heroes and gods fall into his arms from the sea, whole and muscular. Oliver and Elio’s love seems to reflect the classical past: the older man initiating the youth as Achilles initiated Patroclus, as Alexander did with Hephaestion, Hadrian with Antinous. But Oliver, as well as Elio and his family are, in addition to everything else, Jews: they eat potato pancakes – latkes – on Hannukah (which is possibly why this film was chosen to kick off the annual Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival last December).

The Jewish angle isn’t very important in the movie, but does exemplify the attempt to assimilate the conflicts into a meaningless harmony. Because historically, the “Greek love” between men and boys, and the culture that sprang up around it, was rejected by the Jews and repelled them. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria condemned the pagan culture of pederasty; even the circumcision procedure in its familiar form was created to prevent young Jews from taking part in the erotic culture of nude wrestling and athletics. But in “Call Me By Your Name” there is no conflict – Athens and Jerusalem exist side by side in tranquility and fraternity.

“Call Me By Your Name” is a work from the “the pleasures of Provence” or “the tastes of Tuscany” genre. It simply adds a new element to the grilled fish, the wine, the zabaglione and the other culinary experiences of Mediterranean Europe: homosexual eroticism. The sexuality here is subordinate to the culinary, which is the central metaphor of our time. It’s nice and it’s ultra-aesthetic, but at moments the soul yearns: a little darkness, please. At least a smidgeon.



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