A sensitive telling of first love

Call Me By Your Name stars Armie Hammer (left) and Timothee Chalamet embrace during the Oscars last week. Photo: Reuters
Call Me By Your Name stars Armie Hammer (left) and Timothee Chalamet embrace during the Oscars last week. Photo: Reuters
It's very rare that I come across a film that stays with me past walking out of the cinema, or closing my laptop.

But in preparation for last week's Oscars, I stumbled upon one such film - Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, a lush, leisurely film set in Northern Italy in 1983. It tells the story of a graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), and his slow-burning relationship with Elio (Timothee Chalamet), the son of his archaeology professor, Mr Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

The Italian countryside, with its rasping cicadas, hazy sunshine, long days, and clear rivers provides a rich backdrop to the love story. And yet, Call Me By Your Name is more than a simple love story.

It's hard to put my finger on just what I find so compelling about this film. It could be the ridiculous chemistry between the two leads, as their characters flirt by trying to one-up each other with knowledge of history and philosophy, before any words or deeds of love are manifested.

Then again, it could be the fact that Guadagnino takes young love seriously, refusing to dismiss Elio's feelings as mere teenage infatuation. Or, it could be that, outside of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's Maurice, and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name is one of the few genuinely romantic queer love stories I have seen in mainstream cinema.

Representation is important. A few days ago, Daniel D'Addario, writing for Time magazine argued that today's teens no longer need ''gay movies''. But he's wrong. Young queer people need positive role models. They need to see themselves in movies, adverts, books, and television programmes. They need to know that they're not alone, and that what they feel is not abhorrent or unnatural. Equally importantly, straight people need to be exposed to the intricacies (and mundanity) of queer lives and relationships, in an honest and unfiltered way. Call Me By Your Name provides just this.

Moreover, unlike other melodramatic doomed gay love stories, Call Me By Your Name is an almost revolutionary tale of love and acceptance. It's hopeful and uplifting. Unlike Carol and Moonlight, it's almost guilt-free, a story of queer love that isn't tinged with disgust or tragedy. That's not to say that the aforementioned films aren't important. But it seems to me that almost universally, queer love stories in cinema stick to the same general story - the fear of coming out, the disgust of peers, and the inevitable heartbreak that ensues. Spoiler alert: Call Me By Your Name does have a bittersweet ending, but it's not because the main characters are both men.

Call Me By Your Name isn't a sanitised, idealistic vision of same-sex love, however. It acknowledges the very private lives queer men were compelled to lead in the early 1980s, and at the end of the film, Oliver reveals that his father ''would have carted [him] off to a correctional facility'', had he known about their relationship. But it is a film more concerned about the uncertainty of young love, rather than feelings of fear, disgust or shame that so often accompany on-screen depictions of same-sex romance. Its ''queerness'', for want of a better word, is both incredibly important and almost incidental.

The relationship between Elio and Oliver proceeds not by grandiose expressions of love, but by small, realistic gestures. Regardless of your sexual orientation, you will recognise those intimate moments on-screen; the fumbling, awkward first kiss, the lingering glances, the silence before a first move is made.

It's a universal story of first love and loss that has largely been unexplored in mainstream cinema - because it happens to occur between two men.

The final monologue, delivered by Elio's kind-eyed, warm-hearted father is the speech of parental acceptance that every gay kid would cherish and every straight kid needs to hear.

''In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough,'' he says.

''But I am not such a parent ... We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything - what a waste!''

''This is the kind of movie you live in as much as watch. Some of its images ... stay with you afterward like memories of your own half-remembered romance,'' said Dana Stevens in Slate.

Call Me By Your Name is the kind of film that lingers in your heart and mind. If it's not your cup of tea, don't watch it. But don't begrudge others, especially young queer people, the chance to watch this uplifting love story.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.



Thank you for this wonderful review of the film "Call me by your name". A rare gem; a beautiful love story. Intelligent, sensitive, and yes, it stays with you long after viewing. Highly recommended.