Bright Lights Film Journal

A Fine Romance? On Call Me by Your Name

As in romance novels, the excitement of sexual provocation is the heart of the story. It occupies two-thirds of the film: “His finger brushed mine” developed in fifteen stages. The incremental attraction is dramatized nicely, but at and after consummation the movie seems to lose its raison d’etre. The men’s scenes together feel arbitrary; nothing they do you feel has to happen.

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I don’t think this film would have stayed with me as it has if its apparent originality didn’t seem to be hiding something very familiar. Now I think I know what that is. It’s a romance novel recast as a movie.

The setting is dreamy – an elevated “European” way of life exciting to be privy to, be part of imaginatively. Its characters are dreamy (ditto re their fantasy value), but with the difference that the romantic pair isn’t a young woman and a man but two men. The lovely “young man” is virginal; the hired man (gamekeeper, research assistant, gardener, whatever) is experienced, frankly virile, and socially a bit coarse (American). Their attraction is forbidden (by age and early-eighties social mores), but eventually, according to genre, the sexual connection has to happen.

The vague setting is unspoiled by social realities. The young man’s family is of no particular class; they are, simply, free of practical cares. Free also of discord, they embrace, kiss, and stroke one another’s hair whenever they can. They are on comfortable terms with literature and music. (“Elio, play for us!”) They speak French and Italian as well as English; the mother also knows German, and they cluster, limbs intertwined, while she translates something from German for them and then reads the German too, to instruct perhaps, or just to share the sheer pleasure of hearing a foreign language. You may want to call them dilettantes, but the movie prefers that you see them as creatures of sensuous refinement.

As in romance novels, the excitement of sexual provocation is the heart of the story. It occupies two-thirds of the film: “His finger brushed mine” developed in fifteen stages. The incremental attraction is dramatized nicely, but at and after consummation the movie seems to lose its raison d’etre. The men’s scenes together feel arbitrary; nothing they do you feel has to happen. About sex the film can’t seem to lose coyness. There’s no sweat, no tearing into each other, no bodily compulsion – expressions of passion that the movie either doesn’t know about or is too tasteful to indulge in. There’s commotion about eating a peach that any gay man I know would find incomprehensible.

But it’s not a strictly gay film. Though it’s set in the eighties, sexuality is “fluid” in the modern conception. The movie practically dares you to challenge the men’s sexual interest in women. (We narrow-spectrum types should just keep our mouths shut.) Sadly, the fluidity takes the movie into Brokeback Mountain territory at the end – loses some of its claim to originality – when, we learn, the lover commits himself to a heterosexual marriage. But we’re not asked to consider to what extent hypocrisy, or the forces of conventionality, figure into this decision, or even to wonder how the affair has affected the young man’s sexual identity. The movie stays, loftily, with vulnerability and tears.

The two men are attractive. The movie wants you to see Classic Greek beauty in them, and you do. Armie Hammer’s eyes even have a sculpted quality. His body isn’t sculpted, however; it’s articulated and fleshy in a lovely, natural way. (I needn’t say that neither lover openly acknowledges the other’s physical beauty.) Hammer’s handsomeness, however, seems to be an amalgam of other movie stars’ looks; his voice, even, sounds dubbed – by Jon Hamm I think. (I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out whose voice I was hearing.) And his hair looks colored and overgroomed. Hammer acts with authority, but physically he comes off as someone’s dreamy concoction.

I dwell on looks, but then so does the movie. Apart from the actors’ looks, and their physical presences, their roles are barely particularized. Nobody’s role is. The characters profess literacy often, but in fact nobody in the film seems to have any particular view of anything. Apparently the boy has musical gifts, but his piano playing is crude, and his original “composition” sounds like any music student’s exercise. He talks knowingly about Bach, Liszt, and Busoni, but his imitations of their styles are vague and unclever. But we’re not meant to take any of this seriously, or, rather, the movie assumes our ignorance of music history and just wants to impress us with the boy’s precocity. In spite of these efforts, though, we don’t really see an artist in the making.

I did find that virtuoso final shot moving – in particular the moments at the very end when some kind of resignation and strength seems to pass through the young man’s tearful eyes. I admit that I teared up once or twice, but I couldn’t tell you when or why. If you haven’t seen the movie, my advice is to pay your twelve dollars and then get whatever sweet, woozy sensations you can from that lovely summertime world and its lovely people.

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All images are screenshots from the trailer, courtesy of Sony Pictures.