Call Me With Kindness
Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 12:15PM
JA in Adaptations, Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name, James Ivory, LGBT, Luca Guadagnino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet, film critics, nudity, sex scenes

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.

Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (http://thefilmexperience.net/).
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