The Shadow Over 'Call Me by Your Name' (2023)


The acclaimed depiction of gay romance forgoes politics and doesn’t mention AIDS—but there are hints at a broader, darker context for its story.

By Spencer Kornhaber

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The masterful shot that closes Call Me by Your Name asks the viewer to do the same thing the character on screen is doing: think. Over seven minutes, Elio Perlman, the 17-year-old played by Timothée Chalamet, simply stares into a crackling fireplace as tears well in his eyes. He presumably is reflecting on his tryst with Oliver, Armie Hammer’s 24-year-old grad student who visited Elio’s Italian home for the summer. And on Elio’s own father’s life in the closet, revealed to him toward the end of the film. And maybe on his future, perched as he is on the cusp of adulthood, and having just had an affair that felt life-changing.

The audience should be reflecting on those things, too. It’s possible, though, they’d be considering something surely not on Elio’s mind: AIDS. At least, that was the case for me—a fact that has gotten me into arguments with friends who are, understandably, wary of over-reading a film devoted to young love’s bittersweetness and the glory of short shorts.

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The acclaim for Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel has, overwhelmingly, focused on its cinematic loveliness and emotional power. As Guadagnino’s camera inhabits the gaze of a young man whose fantasy becomes reality, it refreshingly depicts “a story of queer love that isn’t tinged with horror or tragedy,” as my colleague David Sims wrote. The flip side is that Call Me by Your Name’s prettiness has come in for rebuke, too, with some critics faulting it for trying too much to appeal to a “universal” audience, and others asking why it has won so much more attention than more provocative, political queer stories.

But I’d argue there actually is a tinge of tragedy to Call Me by Your Name, and part of the richness of the movie is in the way it makes a larger point while mostly keeping politics off screen. The story does feel sealed, its characters happily isolated in a landscape of ripe fruit and ancient ruins that almost feels pre-electricity. Yet on the edges of the film are reminders of the broader social struggle that Elio and Oliver feel temporarily exempted from—and maybe, just maybe, of the epidemic that queer men were beginning to contend with.

Oliver and Elio’s archeologist dad read into the surfaces of the artifacts they unearth—“There’s not a straight line in any of these statues; they’re all curved, as if daring you to desire them,” Mr. Perlman says. The viewer should bring the same scrutiny to Guadagnino’s surfaces. Why, for example, are there so many flies in the movie? Elio swats bugs away repeatedly, and faint buzzing often joins the idyllic soundscape. Flies are especially noticeable in the scene of Oliver and Elio’s first kiss, as well as in the final shot before the fireplace.

The tale unfolds in rural Italian summer, redolent with natural rot—fair enough. But surely there’s a reason Guadagnino draws attention to that rot. At Slate, Eleanor Cummins speculates that the insects, which have short lifespans, symbolize the temporary nature of Elio and Oliver’s affair. Maybe so. But flies can obviously connote human death and illness, too.

The same can be said for blood, such as the blood that suddenly, inexplicably spills from Elio’s nose at dinner. Or such as the blood crusted on a nasty gash on Oliver’s hip. When he first shows his wound to Elio, it’s a sensual tease—though a gory one. Later, right after their first make-out, Oliver points to the injury again, this time to kill the mood. “I think it’s starting to get infected,” he says. These touches—pungent, corporal—fit with a story about physical desire. But they also inject a note of queasiness, raising the thought of the body’s fragility.

Maybe the horror-film flashes are meant simply to reinforce the fear Oliver and Elio must feel. Their relationship is forbidden, we sense, because of their age difference, because Elio is the son of Oliver’s boss, and because they are the same sex. Though none of these factors is spoken of directly, both characters clearly feel a dalliance would be taboo. Elio at one point makes a homophobic crack about his parents’ gay friends. And despite his brash, swaggering affect, Oliver comes off as especially worried about the external world’s judgment. “We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, and that’s a good thing,” he tells Elio after breaking off their first kiss. “I want to be good.”

The miraculous nature of the story stems not only from Elio and Oliver overcoming their fears, but also from the way the obstacles they face simply vanish—because, we later learn, those obstacles were illusory for them. In the monologue Elio’s father gives toward the end of the film, forbidden love is made okay, even encouraged. More than that, Mr. Perlman’s confession—that he has wanted, but never had, the kind of relationship his son has enjoyed—marks the moment when Call Me by Your Name telescopes out. An intimate, specific story must be considered against the larger circumstances that queer people faced. In that context, it becomes a tale, more broadly, of liberation—and perhaps its limits.

When Oliver calls the Perlman household to announce he’s engaged to a woman, it reads as a capitulation for the outwardly swashbuckling American who pursued Elio and hid the fact that he had a girl back at home. Outside of the permissive paradise of the Italian summer, we’re reminded, there are rules. But Elio may have escaped to a freer future than his lover could access, one less constrained by shame and repression. “You’re so lucky,” the older man tells the younger one over the phone. “My father would have carted me off to a correctional facility.” Even so, Elio is shaken by Oliver’s call.

Note the aesthetics of the final scenes. The world is frozen over outside the Perlman house, but inside there is fire and food. The T-shirts he wore in summer have been replaced not only by warmer clothes, but also by more bold, even flamboyant, ones. The pattern on his billowy, tucked-in shirt shows a crowd of androgynous faces. As Elio cries by the fire, a fly crawls across those faces.

The shirt’s design is so reminiscent of ’80s urban life that, whether they’re meant to or not, viewers might start to think of the artist Keith Haring, whose work came to be associated with the fight against HIV/AIDS. Or they may simply think of what that decade meant for queer men, both the closeted ones like Oliver and the growing class of liberated ones like Elio. The book version of Call Me by Your Name was set in 1987, but Guadagnino moved the story to 1983 because, he has said, “’83 is the year—in Italy at least—where the ’70s are killed, when everything that was great about the ’70s is definitely shut down.” Part of that shut-down, any cultural history will attest, is that the sexual awakening of the ’60s, which fed the libertine ’70s, smacked into a hard, deadly reality: AIDS.

I’m not suggesting that the movie telegraphs Elio’s future as one of sickness (Guadagnino has talked about filming sequels that follow these characters years later, Before Sunset–style, and the book closes with a series of flash-forwards). The critic Eric Eidelstein persuasively argues that the film’s flies and blood could be red herrings, subverting the cliché of the ill-fated gay romance. But the flip side of that subversion is an understanding that prejudice is not the only reason gay people have, so often, been saddled with tragic stories in pop culture. It is an understanding that the year’s other splashy European queer film, 120 Beats Per Minute, about AIDS activism in Paris in the early ’90s, need not be seen as a foil to Call Me by Your Name but as a companion piece. Self-actualization—or simply loving as one wants—was not the entire struggle.

The queer utopia Elio and Oliver built is poignantly temporary and limited—both for reasons that the movie spells out, and conceivably for historical reasons that go unmentioned but perhaps not unconsidered. In his sermon, Mr. Perlman invites his son to live his truth, but emphasizes that doing so inevitably means opening oneself up to pain. He also makes a statement that’s queer in the sense of holding opposed meanings, happy and sad. “When you least expect it,” he says, “nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.”

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