“Call Me by Your Name” is, at first, a movie about looking. From his bedroom window, the scholarly 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) watches as Oliver (Armie Hammer), a poised 24-year-old graduate student, arrives in the fertile Italian countryside ― another visitor, there for another lethargic summer. Upon meeting, Elio leads Oliver up a winding staircase and into the room where he will sleep for the next six weeks. Their interactions are as lukewarm as the wide shots that frame them. Exhausted after traveling from America, Oliver doesn’t want dinner, and he doesn’t seem anxious to make a new friend, either. He’s snoring almost as quickly as Elio points to his bed.
There’s a trigger in the teenager’s eyes, though ― a confusion, perhaps a spark of interest. Even when the scene lingers on Elio’s face, it’s hard to discern his exact thoughts, which is fitting; it’s hard for Elio to discern Elio’s exact thoughts, too.
And then the day dawns, the light of morning bringing clarity, maybe. Sunshine beams across the lush lawn as Oliver joins Elio and his parents for breakfast, untutored in the ways of soft-boiled eggs and village geography. Elio peers across the table. The camera mimics his eyes, landing on a small, silver Star of David dangling from Oliver’s neck, shown in sudden close-up and framed by the V of his unbuttoned collar. A pang of desire ripples across the screen, announcing Elio’s quiet enchantment.
This is a familiar sensation for queer people all too acquainted with the psychological warfare waged by the closet, which often ensures that adolescent glances remain just that. Hollywood’s fraught relationship with gay tenderness is slowly evolving, as evidenced in “Call Me by Your Name,” the adaptation of André Aciman’s lauded 2007 novel. Opening in limited release on Friday and primed for the ongoing Oscar derby, Luca Guadagnino’s sensual film uses the torturous politics of the closet as a backdrop, but more than most of the queer cinema that has preceded it, his also clings delicately to the celebration of first love. It doubles down on two recent movies that won similar critical admiration: 2015′s “Carol” and 2016′s “Moonlight.”
In some regards, it’s unfair to compare these three films when so many of their specifics are different. “Carol” revolves around two white women in cloistered 1950s New York, “Moonlight” chronicles a black boy hardening into adulthood in contemporary inner-city Miami, and “Call Me by Your Name” concerns erudite globetrotters in 1983, when Reagan conservatism was sweeping America. But together they are paragons exemplifying the framework that now bolsters gay romance on the big screen. None of the central characters die; no one is abjectly punished for their desires. Each movie ends with a twinkle of bittersweet hope ― something that can’t be said for most queer stories throughout history, even excellent ones like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Philadelphia,” “A Single Man,” “Heavenly Creatures” and “My Own Private Idaho.”
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“Call Me by Your Name,” “Moonlight” and “Carol” boast another similarity: They do not spoon-feed emotions to their audience. There is no grand swoon or quirky meet-cute that unites Elio and Oliver, nor Chiron (played as an adult by Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) in “Moonlight,” nor Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) in “Carol.” Each courtship builds slowly, through glances. What isn’t said is often more important than what is. Most flirtations are clandestine anyway: a kiss stolen near a private lake, a beachside encounter late at night, a road trip removed from any familiar faces. For these characters, romance operates in tandem with, and as a result of, self-discovery. Because the movies depart from predictable Hollywood norms, they’ve been erroneously labeled “cold.”
“Dominant culture needs emotional translation for certain kinds of stories that aren’t their own, and to feel stroked and emotionally protected and given the right kind of recipe of emotional reactions,” Todd Haynes, the director of “Carol,” told HuffPost last month. “If it’s not given to them, it’s cult. It’s like, ‘I will feel for these characters if I have a customary, expected reaction, but if I’m not getting it, then it’s a problem.’ We all have to feed dominant society to make it feel better.”
Elio and Oliver’s affair peaks only when the end of the summer nears. Oliver, the pupil of Elio’s academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg), who facilitates an annual internship at the family’s villa in northern Italy, has been careful not to overextend his welcome. “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter,” Elio tells Oliver, finally hinting that the thing he knows least is how to express his attraction. That crucial sentence recalls Carol’s sentiment toward Therese: “What a strange girl you are, flung out of space.” And it invokes a teenage Chiron, speaking to Kevin in the gleam of twilight: “I wanna do a lot of things that don’t make sense.”
These lyrical words form the essence of these stories, just as they outline the essence of every gay person’s subdued cravings. Nothing makes sense, especially when it’s buried in cloaked glimpses at breakfast tables.
“I knew the emotional journey they were going through,” Guadagnino, known for epicurean dramas like “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” told Deadline. “Butterflies in the stomach is the most beautiful feeling you can feel, no?”
The characters in “Call Me by Your Name,” “Moonlight” and “Carol” can’t appear outside their crush’s window, like Shakespeare’s Romeo or like John Cusack in “Say Anything.” They won’t crash a wedding to prove their devotion, à la Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.” Nor will there be impassioned speeches about true love, as in “Notting Hill” or “Casablanca” or “When Harry Met Sally” or “Pride and Prejudice.” No corny cue cards, no “you complete me.” Those gestures are too overt, too public.
Instead, devotion crescendoes in tiny increments. A performatively defensive Elio tells his parents it’s impolite that Oliver’s preferred adieu is an offhand “later!” At a nightclub, his eyes stay glued on Oliver dancing with a woman. He scribbles notes that say things like “can’t stand the silence.” He pops up from a lake wearing a Star of David around his neck. On average, these signifiers would be grander in a tale of heterosexual love, where best friends can agonize over will-they, won’t-they predicaments, and sages can help to galvanize a budding pursuit.
Because the wait was tortuous, there are few swoons as powerful as that of Elio and Oliver’s first kiss, planted after Elio decides he can’t settle for underhanded flirtations any longer. And there’s no finale like the finale of “Carol,” in which Carol smiles softly as Therese glides toward her, confirming that, yes, they’ll give the relationship a shot after all, despite so many cultural roadblocks. Borrowing the subtle language of queer yearning, these personifications of self-acceptance spark some of the most moving moments in modern cinema.
“When those two characters hug for the first time in the [third chapter of ‘Moonlight,’] you can see Trevante’s hand linger on the back of André Holland’s shirt,” director Barry Jenkins told HuffPost last year. “You can get right in there to see how mesmerizing and terrifying it is for Chiron to finally look this guy in the eye after 10 years. [...] It was really important to me to just show the tenderness. [...] There was something about the nature of this environment and the corporeal quality of two men touching each other.”
Even as more same-sex pairings touch each other onscreen, gay visibility is still a battlefield. It’s telling that only one queer movie per year breaks through the indie noise. In 2017 alone, the collective attention paid to “Beach Rats,” “Battle of the Sexes,” “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” “God’s Own Country,” “Princess Cyd” and “Thelma” trails that of “Call Me by Your Name,” which was anointed the chosen one after its rosy Sundance premiere in January. Even so, these films ― including the AIDS-themed “BPM” ― sculpt characters who refuse to be victims.
To wit, “Call Me by Your Name” is about the beauty of exploration. “We wasted so many days,” Elio tells Oliver after their mutual endearment has fully blossomed. The closet robbed them of their already limited time together. As Sufjan Stevens sings in “Mystery of Love,” a ballad featured in the movie, “How much sorrow can I take? / Blackbird on my shoulder / And what difference does it make / When this love is over?” The summer must end, and heartbreak will follow. But that intoxicating enchantment is forever. In many ways, the story is just beginning. Everything’s an aching close-up.
“Call Me by Your Name” opens in limited release Nov. 24. It expands to additional theaters throughout December and January.