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Gay to December

Sayombhu Mukdeeprom/Sony Pictures Classics

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

This is a very good movie designed for people who are helpless against the appeal of Armie Hammer — which, let’s face it, is most of us. Do we have another movie star handsome and suave enough to evoke the Hollywood stars of old? Most movies are built around men either dull to look at or dull to be around, who are not willing to grin and shrug and casually wander where their curiosity leads them so that you’re compelled to follow.

It’s 1983 and the curiosity of 24-year-old grad student Oliver (Mr. Hammer) has led him to Italy, to assist a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) with studying some ancient Roman statues that have been underwater for millennia. As part of the deal, Oliver is housed in the professor’s home – actually a country villa – which involves the professor’s 17-year-old son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), giving up his regular bedroom. There’s some initial resentment on both sides, but there’s no one other than Elio to show Oliver around. Not that Oliver needs much handholding; he’s soon cracking jokes in Italian and joining card games in the local bars.

Elio has been coming here every summer his whole life and knows the area intimately, including locals such as French-speaking Marzia (Esther Garrel), with whom a summer romance has been building for some time. But there’s something about Oliver, and pretty soon Elio is falling head over heels. The delight of the movie is that Oliver feels the same way.

Isn’t this what we all wanted when we were 17: Someone just the right amount of older who recognized how smart we were and how wonderful? And what a setting for a summer romance. Who wouldn’t want to be in a villa with a housekeeper and a groundsman to do the work, so we can spend our time playing badminton on the lawn or lounging around on the sofas while our mother (Amira Casar) reads to us, or going on cycle rides to the swimming hole, or meeting up with our friends at the town disco to jazz out to The Psychedelic Furs before walking through the old town to find our way back home? “Call Me by Your Name” joins the same continuum of other blissful set-in-Italy American vacation/romance porn such as “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Chocolat,” “Stealing Beauty,” “Letters to Juliet,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” etc. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom knows how to catch a scene so that you can almost feel the temperature in a room, and the subtle shifts between indoor and outdoor light, between humid afternoons and hot clear nights, pass over the screen in an absolutely palpable way. Who wouldn’t want this luxuriously easy, casually intellectual life for themselves?

The trouble with most fantasies is that the details are never sketched out. No one ever mentions money, and hardly anyone is ever shown doing any work. We see almost nothing of the professor’s project, but Mr. Stuhlbarg is going to get nominated for an Oscar anyway for his tearjerker monologue at the end (which absolutely ties the whole movie together, in a way rarely achieved with one scene and one speech): What we do learn about are Elio’s thought processes; what he feels about Marzia, masturbating, his secret corners of the house, his future plans for a music career, his tastes and hopes, and what he does when he’s waiting for someone in a shop. Mr. Chalamet is astonishing – playing the piano, speaking three languages, sulking about, dancing awkwardly, smiling – and the movie’s final shot is a lengthy close-up on his face, but somehow he is not the movie’s revelation. All we learn about Oliver is that he grew up openly Jewish in a New England environment where this was not done. That’s it. The entire appeal of the character is based on Mr. Hammer’s broad shoulders. Few other actors could embody an entire romance just by showing up – there are less shirtless scenes by him as the plot develops – but it’s an unfair burden on Mr. Hammer, and just not quite enough to carry the film. This is a normal problem for romantic comedies where the filmmakers are clearly using one character as a Mary Sue, and usually the movie can get away with it.

But director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory made a very serious tactical error in underestimating the homophobia of most modern audiences. There are a lot of people who just don’t understand the spectrum of human sexuality, and there are even more people who choose not to understand the difference between welcome and unwelcome experiences. These two problems make any movie about gayness at a serious risk of being unfairly derailed generally, but specifically right now by the sudden brutal awakening the culture seems to be having about how people with power can abuse it physically, sexually and emotionally.

It’s important to be extremely clear: This movie is a safe space. I think a lot of this is because the characters are male, and therefore their male director understood instinctively the issues at stake here – a sensitivity the similarly-themed “Blue Is the Warmest Color” did not enjoy. Elio’s relationship with sweet little Marzia and some secrets Oliver has of his own are just as valid to their lives as their relationship with each other. The movie’s biggest mistake is forgetting that there are people immune to Mr. Hammer’s appeal, or to the way of life this movie depicts. A smarter film would have fleshed out its hero just that little bit more so we understand the whole person, not only their best side. (Of the many mistakes of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” this was not one of them.) The year 1983 is hardly the dark ages, but relaxed, lazy acceptance of different sexual lives was not necessarily standard then; and it’s still relatively unusual in American cinema. The culture is changing and this movie will be a big part of that shift, but Oliver being a whole person instead of a dreamboat would have elevated this movie to the first rank.

But go see this movie, bask in the sunshine and feel your heart growing three sizes larger.


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