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« Soundtracking: The Grammy Nominees | Main | Yes No Maybe So: "Avengers: Infinity War" »
Wednesday
Nov292017

Call Me With Kindness

by Jason Adams

Call Me By Your Name is turning out to be the sort of success none of us saw coming sixteen months ago when it was first announced that the director of I Am Love was tackling a little gay love story. It just broke the 2017 record for per theater average over the weekend, and its reviews have been unanimously stellar. It won Best Feature at the Gothams Monday night, it topped the Independent Spirit nominations, and it’s expected to stick around racking up such prizes all awards season long.

And yet there’s been one complaint that’s nagged at the movie from a determined bunch of folks (including the film’s own writer, legend James Ivory) since it first screened at Sundance in January – a supposed shyness about nudity and gay sex. Ivory told Variety it’s a “pity” there's no full-frontal nudity in the film, while The Guardian called the movie “coy” and Slate called it out for a “lack of explicit sex.” One shot in particular has rankled these folks the most – a seemingly old-fashioned pan out the window just as the characters finally approach their erotic consummation.

The film’s director Luca Guadagnino, who probably had to look up the word “coy” in the dictionary the first time it was lobbed at him for this, is nonplussed by the reaction – he told Vulture:

“It’s really something I don’t understand. It’s as if you said there are not enough shots of Shanghai. I don’t understand why there has to be Shanghai in this movie.”

I’m inclined to agree with him. Not only because I found the film sexy as hell, erotic in languorous, voyeuristic ways that movies don’t really approach anymore. Its sense of tactility, for sweat and fabric and skin, and its often-prurient stares – up the legs of swimming trunks, for example - are a welcome shock to the system that makes the forbidden seem commonplace, easy...

Listen to the sound of Armie Hammer’s lips smacking around all sorts of things and I double dare you to at that moment to think of anything else going on in the world.

Guadagnino points his camera at these sensual creations, the sunlight a hint too bright in their eyelashes, daring you to desire them… and desire them you do.

But the complaint of coyness, even if just factually astray on its surface, seems a complaint that ultimately misses the point, and misses part of what makes Call Me By Your Name such an emotionally rewarding experience. Guadagnino digs deep and makes a case for what he does do and why he does it, built right into the film from its feet, sweetly nestled together, on up.

So rather than call the movie by the wrong name, like some critics seem intent on doing, let’s call the movie by what the movie is instead.

It starts with semen.

Clearly not the coyest place to start, but it’s a good start nonetheless. Oliver (Hammer) is wiping semen off of his chest as Elio (Timothée Chalamet), spent and naked and also splashed with seed, lies beside him. Their bodies pointed in opposite directions, their privte parts concealed by the bed frame – who knows where one ends and the other begins.

“Malfalda always looks for signs.”

“She won’t find any.”

Malfalda is the housekeeper – Elio is paranoid in this moment of post-coital bliss that she will find the semen-stained shirt and, you know, know things.

“You know what things.”

For a movie set in such an idyll – a gorgeous old house nestled in the hills of Northern Italy; parents that are open and accepting to a very nearly unimaginable degree; nothing to do with one’s time but lay beside a pool, read books and listen to music and fall in love – there remains an unspoken paranoia lurking at its edges giving its central romance form and shape.

Perhaps it’s because we know Elio’s parents (and housekeeper, for that matter) mean well, that we remain untroubled for them, at least in this way. We after all are privy to see when his mother and father plot out the young mens final time in the mountains together. But from Elio and Oliver’s perspectives there are a lot of eyes on them, and the mating dance they do for one another beside that pool for six not-long-enough weeks is always being looked in on by other folks too. 

Before Elio has even had time himself to realize his obsession with Oliver the girl he’s simultaneously romancing called Marzia (Esther Garrell) calls him on it – as she undresses before him for a night-swim she makes the case that she’s only standing there undressing because of some sort of sexual chess Elio is playing with “him.” She sees.

When Elio and Oliver do finally broach the subject of this thing between them it is in the middle of town as they circle a war monument – one long shot where the camera dances alongside them. We watch them watching each other, while a world around them – buses and cars and pedestrians - walks by, squaring them in. And a bit later after the two have consummated their relationship they walk through town again and Oliver tells Elio, “I would kiss you if I could.” If he could.

But they cannot – they are aware they are being watched.

Any glance at Elio’s mother Annella (Amira Casar) at any point in the film will make you witness to the film’s intent watchfulness – Annella sees, Annella knows everything. She is always taking in her son, taking in Oliver. After Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) gives his rightfully heralded final speech about the importance of experiencing your life fully – “Don't kill it, and with it the joy you've felt...” – Annella’s watchfulness or lack thereof gets played as a sort-of punch-line:

“Does Mom know?”

“I don’t think she does.”

She knows. We know she knows. And Elio’s father knows she knows – he’s just saving his son a moment of embarrassment. In the very next scene when Elio talks to Oliver on the phone he admits that both of his parents know everything. And he continues…

“Elio, Elio, Elio…”

“Oliver… I remember everything.”

“Elio.”

That’s how their phone conversation ends, and those are the final words of the film, an intermingling of their names calling back to the film’s identity-shuffling title. But importantly that final “Elio,” the final word of the film, is spoken by Annella, seizing her son out of his fire-side swoon – she calls him by his name and brings him back to the world. To himself. Elio.

Although we don’t find out a lot about Oliver it’s clear Oliver has some reason to be paranoid about the world watching – he’s older for one, and he mentions a father that’s not nearly as open-minded as Elio’s parents are. Because of them it’s easier for Elio to be freer, exploratory, but the film still shows him boxed in by his own confusion – you could even make a case that in place of any kind of traditional antagonist Guadagino translates the main tension of Andre Aciman’s book, which is told through Elio’s neurotic self-narration, outward in this way. 

By eliminating that voice inside Elio’s head yanking him this way and that, Guadagnino, a self-confessed voyeur, shapes the romance between Oliver and Elio by both the constraints of Time – the clock of “six long weeks” unwinding – and by this festival of eyeballs crowding in around them. Elio watching Oliver, Oliver watching Elio, Annella watching them both, Malfalda looking for those signs of semen-stained blue shirts.

And most importantly us, the audience, watching everything.

In Physics there is the concept of “The Observer Effect,” which states that the scientist changes the outcome of their experiment simply by observing it. That their eyes, and all of the chemical reactions putting together all those images coming through them, are complicit in the shaping of that observed reality. That we force our way in without even meaning to.

There’s a thread running through Call Me By Your Name about kindness and generosity. It comes up time and again. It is after all the story of a family letting a stranger into their dream home in the Italian countryside for a whole summer – an extraordinary niceness is baked in from page one, which at least partly explains why people have reacted so emotionally to the film here in the midst of these unkind times we live in. (It’s part of why I’ve seen the movie seven times already, and part of why my original reaction was so strong, for sure.)

“That might be the kindest thing anyone has said to me in weeks,” Oliver says at one point to Elio. “Kind?” Elio asks, not sure yet how to handle the idea of that, of kindness, in relation to the mass of confusion he is then feeling.

While Annella reads the story of the knight in love with the princess who doesn’t know whether to “speak or die” she and her husband share an inside joke over the German word for friendship – “freundschaft” – and later during Elio’s father’s speech he repeats twice what a “nice friendship” Elio and Oliver had. And at the end of the film Marzia tells Elio she loves him and, after an awkward pause, the two promise to have a friendship for life.

Friendship, the brotherhood these two men find in their shared Jewishness, the love and yes sex that they find in one another’s arms – all of these forces glimmer and glide over the film, a warm bath beside the bodies, entwined.

So let’s get back to those bodies entwined, since that’s where our argument begins and ends. Before the semen spills those bodies must come together, and come together they do – at the pre-arranged hour of Midnight (“Grow up” Oliver commands, and grow up Elio shall) the two men sneak through the house, and here we hear the first notes of Sufjan Stevens’ song “Visions of Gideon” playing. This immediately links this moment forward to the film’s ending (this song will play over Elio’s fire-side reminiscences) -- this consummation already at its undoing.

As we hear Oliver expound from his Heraclitus text in one of the film’s few remaining voice-overs: the river stays the same even though the water within it changes.

So the two men tip-toe through the house lest someone hear them – don’t let that door slam! Still aware of the outside forces edging them in. They go to Elio’s bedroom, now Oliver’s – Elio jokes that he likes what Oliver has done with the place – because where else would they go? This is the place where destiny has joined them. We even see that the bed itself is really two twin beds pushed together - as so goes their identities. One of two, communion.

Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.

As the two men tumble into bed, one on top of the other and then the other on top of the first, the world spinning, the camera, having stared so long and so intently at their dance... turns away. The same camera that Luca Guadagnino has just spent an hour pointing right up the short-legs of these two men suddenly, inexplicably to some, blushes.

We float out the window, taking in the trees, as Elio whispers and moans Oliver’s name upon the breeze. Oliver, Oliver, the name echoes across the fruit orchard (or, as Elio’s father called them earlier, “Annella’s Trees.”)

Why in this moment of all moments would Guadagnino possibly turn away?

Because this is the film’s lesson. Kindness. Generosity. To watch Oliver and Elio make love in this moment would be a violation. Everyone is watching everyone else so intently in Call Me By Your Name, and projecting their selves out onto those things, that the greatest gift, the fiercest kindness we can offer them is just for this moment to look away.

To give them something that is theirs - only theirs.

This is the whisper at the end of Lost In Translation. This is not ours. This is the name Elio becoming the name Oliver becoming the name Elio becoming the name Oliver. We have no call coming between them at this moment – to insert ourselves into their communion would, as the Observer Effect goes, ruin the whole damn deal.

We manage to take everything before, and we manage to take everything after –as Elio’s father says we rip so much out of ourselves that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty, and this feels in line with that. We watch for two full hours and in the end we still steal what we will off of Timothee Chalamet’s face as he uses it to describe everything we have (and have not seen) in minute detail across that face in that final astonishing shot.

That is enough. More than enough – that is plenty. Generous, even. It is our job, as the voyeurs invited in on these intimacies before us, to give them something in return - a peace, a remembrance. That ethos is set down at the film’s core – kindness, friendship, and brotherhood. It is within each other that Oliver and Elio find themselves in this story, and to invade right then, at its apex of intimacy, would be its undoing.

As the song “Visions of Gideon” asks over those final moments, the “six long weeks” of this romance projecting across Elio’s wounded and ultimately triumphant face, “Is it a video? Is it a video?” It is a video. It is Elio’s video, his memory, his world. And it’s only through him and his eyes that we might see.

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Reader Comments (31)

I just wanted to comment that this is my favorite piece that I've read about Call Me by Your Name thus far. Beautifully written, and the perfect rejoinder to anyone who offers the fairly weak and insubstantial complaint that the film isn't explicit enough in its depiction of gay sex. My feeling has been that these viewers somehow aren't seeing everything that *is* there--how every scene is filmed in a way that makes it supercharged, all at once, with tension, sensuality, and kindness. Thanks very much for this post.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterE.

Jason, you've outdone yourself. Damn.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I would disagree to a point. I think the film is marvelous and my favorite of the year. To paraphrase "Oliver is Oliver", this movie is this movie. The novel was about the stirrings of first love, which the film devotes itself and depicts vividly, but it was also about the all-consuming nature of this relationship where both lovers want to embody each other, hence calling each other by the other's name. In the novel Oliver eats the peach as an act of communion. He wants Elio's being in him and it is an act that brings Elio to tears for its kindness not so much because of embarrassment as it's suggested in the film. What the film loses in its coyness is metaphysical aspect of this romance, but as a romantic film about first love and heartbreak it is a masterpiece. And I can still appreciate it for that while I wish that it also could have been a little bit more.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Thanks Jason. I already wanted to see this again. Your love letter makes me want to see it seven times.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterdavidm

Jason, thank you from me too. What a wonderful reading of the film, and what a wonderful way to make the point about its representation of the sex.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

An excellent read and well supported piece!

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Coming back to read this after I've seen the film. :)

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Standing ovation applause to this text!

And about Call me by your name and their sequels:

the cinematic equilvalent to IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME by Marcel Proust?

God, I HOPE SO! *-*

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJon

This was absolutely beautiful. I've seen the film five times, and just like it was a different experience to see it after I read the book (between viewings 2 and 3) I think it will be again having read your article. Thank you for this.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Such beautiful writing. The best of its kind in this site. Saw the movie twice and fell in love with it on both occasions. Best movie I’ve seen since eternal sunshine.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

Jason, beautiful article, thank you! While I am a big fan of naked man parts, Guadagnino does something more daring and erotic than nudity...he shoots the men (and women) in such a beautiful, eroticized way that you are confronted by your own desire. It's stunning. Gorgeous article on a gorgeous film.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

This essay, my god, is as beautiful and poignant and emotional and soulful and joyful, as the film itself. Thank you.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered Commenternewhouse

Congratulations Jason! This is a wonderful article. Dare we think of a gay-themed film winning Best Picture two years in a row?

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Beautifully written and so to the point. I think this movie deals with sex in much more daring and sensual way, than simple depiction of sexual activity - never thought glances and awkward embraces could be that erotic. There was no need for nudity or explicity - some things are better left unseen. And yes, we have witnessed enough of their relationship, in a very intimate way - to ask for more would be plain violation

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMadi M

As a 40 year-old gay man, I can say I was disappointed that this material was handled by a straight director and acted by straight men. Not because straight folks wouldn't be able to realistically convey gay romance, gay love or gay sex, but because they actually didn't in this case (the coyness doesn't bother me, not everything needs to be Blue is the Warmest Color). The thing is not for a second did I believe Oliver had any real interest in Elio, sexual or otherwise. The actor playing the role of Oliver just seemed uncomfortable and wooden, his line readings never conveying any truth or authenticity (not to be confused with the character's discomfort-two distinct things). It has nothing with him being straight (Heath Ledger comes to mind), but it has to do with his limitations as an actor/artist. He is even less convincing as a scholar (it felt almost as inauthentic as when Denise Richards played a scientist).
I don't really need a movie that represents with truth and authenticity my experience as a gay man. So I wonder if the overpraising by gay fans (watching it 5, 6 times??) comes from a need to feel represented in the arts, willing to overlook the fact that the emotions and situations depicted here are not imbued with truth.
We see what we want to see. Or rather, what we need to see. The eye of the beholder in this case couldn't be more collectively histerical. Herd mentality seems to be an epidemic in this social media universe and dissonant voices are often accused of missing the point. Maybe. Maybe not.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGio

Gio: I believe the director is gay, though I may be wrong about that.

I feel some of the things you feel about Armie Hammer's performance as Oliver - or I think I might feel them. But I do think his performance strengthens the notion of Oliver as an enigma, the object of Elio's desire. There is something slightly difficult to access about their desire for each other, but I think that that chimes with what Jason writes about privacy and kindness. This film doesn't paint the love affair in predictable ways.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Edward & Gio -- Luca Guadagnino (director) & James Ivory (screenwriter) are gay. But the actors aren't.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Jason I follow you on Twitter and always enjoy your blog. This piece is terrific. Nathaniel, thanks for brining us quality material like this. I'm so pleased. Everyone has their own experience with CMBYN. Mine is deeply felt and so hard to put into words. Thank you for making it easier.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHepwa

Jason, this is an excellent article. Thank you for sharing the concept of the Observer Effect, it was brilliantly applied in the case of this beautiful film. I'm going to see it for a third time this Saturday. I too initially felt a little cheated out of not seeing a more explicit love scene with these absolutely beautiful men, and that's only because I'm so used to seeing those type of scenes from straight people and lesbians - and always with a male gaze view of the woman's naked flesh. In Call Me, I expected and wanted to see naked male flesh. Your rational explanation helps me better understand and appreciate Luca's camera techniques.

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSimone

I haven't seen this film yet. But thank you Edward, because you explained how some of the emotional sleeves of this movie can be overlooked. So far LB and Dunkirk are the best movies for me. But that is the beginning...

November 30, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

There's semen in Moonlight.

November 30, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

So...

Because there’s semen by their naked chests, it’s an act of kindness to pan away instead of an act of evasion? What is this, Atonement? Haha!

Your article is written beautifully, and your belief in these truths is equally as beautiful.

It isn’t the book I read, though. They defecate for each other, for crissakes. Eliot literally tells Oliver he wants “no secrets between us.”

Unless we take the film to be the antithesis of the book, which was so frankly open, and honesty, that’s fine, and a primary reason why it’s received so well commercially and critically.

Anyway, I apologize. I’m not trolling you or trying to convince you of anything, as we all know that is futile where passion for a thing is concerned.

But... Proust? The blanket acclaim? How can I trust something so universally loved and loved by a group of people so afraid to critique and poke the cracks in the fissures? This isn’t a perfect book... it’s one of my favorite books because it isn’t perfect and because the issues I have with it help me as a writer and observer and even as a critic of the things I care for.

The only time I’ve ever believed something to be so loved is when it’s watered down to a degree that a universal people can all come to love it. Where is the specificity of the unspoken and the brazen acts of sexuality? Coyness? Shyness?

That was the exact opposite of what I felt when I read this right before the summer of 2007. I felt like I had finally found, somehow, my voice in someone else’s protagonist. Elio was me and I was Elio. This book convinced me of what I already knew, just as I believe Elio knows it by the end: to awaken sexually is to cease to be coy and shy about our desires. It’s to act on them fully and visibly.

To pan away is a lovely dream necessitated by actors’ contracts and a centuries-long stigma. I don’t blame them. But I certainly won’t applaud their bravery, either.

That’s just me, though. Again, this is a lovely article and window into your perceptions. And your truth.

Thank you for sharing it.

November 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterManny

Thank you to everybody for the kind words! Writing this piece was therapeutic to me -- I was too consumed with the film; writing this literally made me feel saner

Manny - I just feel like's it a necessary change made between mediums. Film is a visual medium. We can get right down deep inside Elio's head in the book - that's where the whole thing takes place. You have to change your approach to make this into a movie; you can't tell us about intimacy the same way you can with a book. You have to find visual ways to represent it. I mean, the defecation scene, for example, there is no way to play that on-screen in the symbolic way it works in the book. No way. But I don't disagree with anything you said about the book. I just think that Luca found a really lovely and surprising and touching way to translate that intimacy to film, which is what I was describing here. :)

November 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason

I wish he had found a way.

But as I've said before, back when I first heard about the adaptation, I have a particularly potent bond with the book: it was my college thesis. I spent 2 years turning it into my own script, and presented it alongside an unrelated work as my final word, so to speak, on my college life and education.

I still have Mr. Aciman's email apologizing that the rights were already sold (in response to my own email inquiring about them and whether or not they were acquirable), so, a lot of my response to this film is colored and informed by my own conflicting volcano of emotions in seeing so much of my own take being presented in front of me by one of my favorite new directors while at the same time struggling with the fact that he has missed so many opportunities I took (and most likely vice versa, of course), AND that we agree on so many key points, while at the same time wholeheartedly disagree on so many others!

I wanted this to be bolder. I wanted him, if it will no longer be me, to take the risk of showing the things that have no space in visual medium, attempt to find that space.

I know this will seem self-serving, and I am inherently aware there is no way around it... I would have preferred this to have been divisive, and not universally beloved at all. To me, that would have been the balm for the ache I feel in loving its existence, and also wishing it had never been at all.

But your thoughts are wonderful, and though I don't know how long you've been in love with CMBYN, it's great to see my own obsession reflected ten years later.

I'll go away now.

November 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterManny

So much has been written about this film but nothing yet as good as this. This felt like close-reading a film, which rarely happens anymore in film criticism.

Thank you Jason.

November 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAkash

Gio: I think you’re too occupied with labels. The way Andre aciman writes his novels involve a sense of pansexuality or bisexuality. At the root of what he writes is the notion that nature is nature and love is Love. I wouldn’t be so preoccupied with such things like this movie being a gay romance or the actors are straight either. The actors and directors have said this is a film of two people falling in love and that’s just what is it. Both characters show attraction for opposite genders as well.

On your thoughts of armies portrayal of Oliver, I haven’t even watched the movie but from what I gather from the trailers and the book, Oliver is an outwardly cold person. His strong outwardly confident and cold attitude helps him hide his insecurities, which explains why he isn’t able to continue his relationship with elio at the end of the book. This also explains his mixed signs and the long nights by the beach he spends by himself, as he struggles to make up his mind.

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Happy with your well crafted analysis. The lack of explicitness was, for me at least, vital. The huge impact of Call me by your name for me was as a restoration of a long cherished memory whose colour & thus it's vibrancy had faded with the many intervening years. I sat aghast at that first showing. I've been many times now and look forward to the Blu-ray. I don't much worry on the awards front or about the few haters popping up. Nothing can take away the real beauty of what the director achieved here. I don't for a moment believe I am alone here as I very much see echoes reflected in commentary all over. The entire cast including the stunning location should be rightly proud. They have, in my opinion, earned our respect and from some more than a little love. 💐

December 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Thomas

Raul - Oliver tastes the peach, whether he licks the peach with the semen (as in the movie) or he bites it (as in the novel).. Also, in the movie, Oliver wants to bite the peach, he wants Elio’s inside him, but after some struggle Elio stops him from doing so and gets emotional not because he's embarrassed, but because he's in love and doesn't want to lose Oliver.. I think the movie keeps the metaphysical aspect of their all consuming relationship..

Gio - Armie exquisitely illustrated Oliver’s range of emotions. From masculine and stoic grad student to vulnerable and conflicted lover, Armie’s nuanced expressions and behavior brought Oliver to life as more than a godlike figment of the imagination; he felt real and palpable. I think without this connection, we as the audience would not have been able to sympathize with Elio’s loss at the end of the movie.

December 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaurav

I just want to share my interpretation that, when Elio asks "Does mom know?", he is asking if his mother knows about the relationship his father just alluded to that he himself almost, but never truly had.

December 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAsh

Hmmm that's interesting, Ash! I hadn't even thought of that. Entirely possible. Next time I watch the movie I'll try to think of it that way and see how it reads. Thanks for offering that up :)

December 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Beautiful written, even if I'm not quite sure I agree.

But just to clarify, Elio's dad says his mom doesn't know and then it's much later when Elio says on the phone that both his parents know. His mom could have found out in the intervening time (or, like you say, she already knew and his father denied it). I think you could make a case either way without any direct evidence.

December 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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