“What of [Alcibiades’] beard? Are you not of Homer’s opinion, who says, ‘Youth is most charming when the beard first appears’? And that is now the charm of Alcibiades.”
— Socrates, the Protagoras
That is also the charm of Elio, the horny heart of Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino’s sunnily seductive ode to eros. The script announces that the sullenly beautiful Elio (ably portrayed by Timothée Chalamet) is 17, but he could pass for two years younger: there is no hair on his narrow chest and little on his spindly arms and legs, but there’s just enough fuzz on his upper lip to justify a proudly pubescent shave.
Call Me By Your Name
Why is the critic spending so much time describing this young man’s body? Because the director spends so much time displaying and regarding it. For one thing, it’s summer at a villa in Italy; shirts are for females, the old, and the bourgeois — and Elio’s family is advertised from the outset as anything but bourgeois. “We almost had sex last night,” announces the youngster at breakfast the morning after a rendezvous with his sort-of girlfriend. “Why didn’t you?” asks his archaeologist father with perfect nonchalance. A prude might have gasped in horror. A yahoo might have given his son a high-five. But this dad (Michael Stuhlbarg, radiating sensitivity) just wants to understand what happened — or didn’t.
Guadagnino’s loving attention to Elio’s physique also helps draw a connection between our very young man and the sensuous Greek statuary that Dad is currently researching. As he rescues one such treasure from the watery depths, he relates how a separate casting of the same work was melted down by a particularly philistine pope and turned into a voluptuous statue of Venus. Oh, those tacky Catholics, taking the pure expressions of desire fashioned by the ancients and turning them toward the service of something base like procreation. (Didn’t they read Plato’s Symposium? Don’t they know about the excelling virtue in loving someone like yourself?) Oh and looky here: Elio is a Jew living in a Catholic country, a sophisticated outsider in a town of simple girls eager to belong to a handsome boy. He may be willing to bed such a creature, but that doesn’t mean he can love one. Love is reserved for 24-year-old Oliver, the hunky slab of a grad student (Armie Hammer) staying in Elio’s bedroom while he assists Dad with his work.
And if Elio yearns for Oliver’s manly perfection, Oliver shares Socrates’s fondness for the precocious. Just look at the way he slurps down his glass of freshly squeezed apricot juice; just listen to how he explains that the fruit’s name is rooted in the Latin praecocia — “early ripen” — but also owes a little something to the Greeks, and at one time was rendered in English as abrecock. Oh, ho-ho!
Still, the two can’t just fall into each other’s arms, because where’s the satisfaction (for the viewer, anyway) in that? This isn’t English schoolboys turning to each other to relieve their needs; this is the discovery of something rarefied and exalting. So the two circle each other warily: Oliver gives Elio a back rub, telling him he’s too tight and needs to relax. Elio tweaks a Bach piece that Oliver enjoys, giving him what he wants, but not the way he wants it. They discuss “The Heptaméron”’s question of “Is it better to speak or to die?” “We can’t talk about these kinds of things,” warns Oliver, without saying why. “You’re making things difficult for me,” he says later — again, without saying what exactly the difficulty is. (By this time, they’re lying by a river and exchanging gentle kisses.) Later still: “I don’t want either of us to pay for this.” Pay how? Elio’s parents have gay friends and demand that Elio be polite to them, so it’s probably not that.
Most likely, Oliver’s concern comes from the difference in their ages. Or maybe it’s that he’s screwing the son of his professor while he’s a guest in his home. But this is no moralist’s tale of forbidden love. The only moral imperative is to seize the day, nothing is forbidden, and it’s hard to really call what happens between Elio and Oliver love. Elio says he just wants to be with Oliver, and that seems about right: we witness little personal intimacy between them beyond an overwhelming delight in one another’s bodies. And the title, born of a post-coital chat between the two, is telling: young Elio wants to address this grown-up he’s just had sex with as Elio — as himself.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Call Me By Your Name is the cool remove Guadagnino retains from his frank depiction of desperate teenage longing and volcanic sexual passion. It’s a story less about the characters involved than it is about the dynamics between them, a late addition to the Symposium’s accounts of the great god love.