The power of love gained and lost in “Call Me by Your Name”

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“Call Me by Your Name” is a 2017 dramatic film adapted from André Aciman’s book by the same name about a 17-year-old boy, Elio, who lives with his family in the northern Italian countryside. During the summer of 1983, a 24-year-old graduate student named Oliver lives with the family, interning for Elio’s archaeologist father. Soon after Oliver’s arrival, Elio realizes he’s developed an attraction to Oliver and soon confesses his feelings to him after which they quickly pursue a romantic and sexual relationship, causing Elio to slowly disassociate himself from his girlfriend. After Elio and Oliver are sent on a three-day trip to Bergamo by Elio’s parents, who are aware and quite accepting of the two’s relationship, Oliver leaves and Elio returns home, heartbroken. Later, during Hanukkah, Oliver calls and informs Elio that he is engaged to be married, but he holds the memories they shared with him. The movie ends with Elio sitting by the fireplace with tears rolling down his face.

The characters were written realistically: Oliver’s scholarly arrogance as a graduate student was remarkably familiar and Elio’s precociousness was understated and genuine, unlike the typical fake-deep prodigies that plague today’s books and movies.

Filming took place in northern Italy, providing authentic and beautiful atmospheres that made each scene a pleasure to watch. Costuming and scenery, including cars and Italian urban centers, were era-appropriate and totally believable, an impressive feat for a plot set in 1983.

Most importantly, the plot’s exploration of what would have been an unspoken and “taboo” story is done incredibly tastefully and legitimizes the experiences of gay men in an era before they were recognized. The film demonstrates the eroticism and sensual beauty of love between gay men in a manner that has previously been reserved for only heterosexuals.

However, the beauty of the plot and film itself are almost overshadowed by the glaring and uncomfortable age gap between the two main characters, exacerbated by Elio’s actor’s (Timothée Chalamet) extremely youthful appearance and Oliver’s actor’s (Armie Hammer) physique which makes him appear years older than his character really is. The subject has garnered much debate following the film’s release.

In a time in which power dynamics and predatory sexual pursuits are finally being openly discussed and resolved, this aspect of the film must be addressed. I fear that this issue is being ignored, considered to be “made up for” by its success as a realistic and powerful film that concerns a marginalized and disregarded group. The adaptation did not need to retain the age and experience gaps that were present in the book. The core of the story, the first-time experience of the beauty of male sensuality and the usually unfortunate fate of those relationships in a time of little acceptance, is not contingent on the relationship between what are now considered a man and a child.

Though social attitudes and laws were different during the time the story takes place, there are inherent dangers in romanticizing a relationship with this sort of questionable age gap.

Though I believe the film is more of a telling of a likely past story and should not be considered nor has to be a representation of a healthy relationship, the fact is that, as a result of its large popularity, the relationship portrayed will be distorted and romanticized, creating the risk of the idealization of imbalanced relationships. Moreover, it could create the unfair and incorrect assumption that gay relationships are prone to be unhealthy and make gay men appear innately predatory.

While I thought the movie had a strong plot with nuanced characters and found the film pleasing visually, I fear that in its deserved popularity, its messages and representations will be distorted, backfiring against the intentions of the film.  

Cover photo courtesy of Financial Times.

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