Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.
By Jerald Raymond Pierce
It’s an unpopular opinion not to put Call Me By Your Name somewhere in my top 5, 3, 2 or 1 movies of the year it seems. Really, it’s not that I didn’t like the movie, it’s that I couldn’t quite like it as much as everyone else seems to. In Ann Hornaday’s review of the movie, she touches on two of areas I think point to the reasons I have trouble falling as head over heels as everyone else has.
Hornaday points out “the plot of ‘Call Me by Your Name’ isn’t particularly novel.” She goes on to say it’s fine because the greatness of the movie isn’t about the plot being new or unique, it’s about how well the story is told. I get that, I really do. But when looking at this movie in the context of the Best Picture nominees, it’s hard to put it over other movies offering me something new. A new take on a monster movie or a new look at horror movies and racial issues. A different composition of a war-time story or a revitalized coming of age story. Even Three Billboards challenges me to care about some very complex, sometimes downright awful people.
So I want Call Me By Your Name to be more. Perhaps, as Hornaday and others point out, this movie’s skill is in the way it captures the lazy summer days in Italy. The beauty is in the fact that it feels familiar. Despite the fact that I (and many others) didn’t have a truly comparable experience to Elio’s, we feel his aches every step of the way. Still, the plot moved too predictably for me. Of course they struggle to show their feelings. Of course they eventually get together. Of course it eventually falls apart. Of course there’s an uplifting moment from Elio’s incredibly understanding father. From the minute the movie said it was 1989 and showed me two attractive men in that environment, the plot was obvious.
Which still isn’t the most distracting element of the movie for me. Hornaday alluded to the issue after stating that Elio and Oliver are seven years apart in age: “Before readers look up the Italian word for ‘problematic,’...” That may have been easy for some (many) to look past, especially when getting swept up in the beautiful filmmaking, but it became a major distraction for me. Especially in today’s climate, I couldn’t help but wonder if this movie would be received the same way if, say, it was any other combination of genders. An older man and a 17-year-old girl stands out as something that would be particularly thrashed by today’s masses. But here we are, praising the love between a 24-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy simply because, as Hornaday put it, “it is Elio, not Oliver, who is the pursuer.”
I wondered for the duration why we’re so ok with Elio and Oliver’s relationship. And I have to wonder if there isn’t a bit of fetishization (or perhaps just romanticizing) of homosexual relationships that has led to us feeling that this isn’t as disturbing as we otherwise should.
This is one thing I wish had been addressed somewhere in the movie to eliminate it as a distraction. So much of Elio’s experience, his desires and his confusion, were beautifully done, especially the scene between him and his father toward the end of the movie. Not to mention the absolute perfection of the power shifts that happened right after Elio and Oliver had sex for the first time and, to get power over Elio back, Oliver goes down on him for a brief second before closing the door in his face. The ebb and flow of Elio and Oliver’s relationship was so well done that it shouldn’t have mattered the age, the fact that they were two men who had feelings for each other should have been enough.
I can’t help but ask: what if it was a different combination? Would this movie still work?
But again, much like with the idea of a familiar plot, maybe it doesn’t matter because that’s not what the movie wanted to do.