Friday, April 12, 2024

Call Me By Your Name Is A Tale of Lust, Love, and Hot Summer Days

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Spoiler Warning for Call Me By Your Name, the novel and, by extension, the movie. Content warning for age-gap relationship as depicted by the story. 

Written by Egyptian-Italian author André Aciman and published in 2007, Call Me By Your Name is a piece of LGBT+ fiction that has been gaining a lot of attention this year due to its upcoming movie adaptation directed by Luca Guadagnino. The movie has premiered in several film festivals and is poised to be a serious award contender both in technical and acting categories for its leads Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

The story follows a mostly chronological path as, in the first person, the main character Elio starts remembering back the events of a distinct summer in the mid-eighties at his parent’s house somewhere in Italy. One of the distinct qualities of the narrative is its almost stubborn necessity to not give too much detail about time and location as a probable way to say that, in the end, this tale is universal and so it should not be contained or pinpointed.

Elio’s parents have a long standing tradition of receiving an international scholar every summer for six weeks as they finish whatever manuscript they are working on while helping Elio’s dad manage his correspondence. Deeply rooted in intellectual discussions, the book spends quite some time “vomiting” philosophy, classical music, and linguistics on the reader.

In that particular summer, the family receives Oliver Ulliva, a 24-year-old professor at the University of Columbia who is meant to revise his book on Heraclitus. The older Elio remembering his own story can’t quite pinpoint when exactly that his love story with Oliver started, but he imagines it must have been right at the beginning, from the very first time they saw each other and started an intense game of flirting during the upcoming weeks.

Putting it plainly, Elio is a very hormonal boy that has already figured out that he is also attracted to men, but he hasn’t thought things that through yet. Oliver comes as a huge catalyst when Elio is determined to befriend this man, but gets intensely overcome with grief when some of his attempts are met with a glacial look that Oliver occasionally gives.

Another distinct quality of Aciman’s writing is how well he can transcribe Elio’s erratic thoughts and proneness to overthinking. He initiates incredibly long sentences that tumble over each other, becoming hard to follow on occasion, starting at point A, going to B, and finishing in some other point that is not even in the alphabet.

During part I, “If Not Later, When?”, we see first hand how this young man with an acute attraction is handling having someone he can’t stop thinking about so close and yet so far apart, creating internal conflict that he himself can’t quite sort out. Is he in love with Oliver? Couldn’t he simply be horny and, if he had sex with him once, it would be done? Why can’t he stop staring at his body and thinking about every lewd action the both of them could do naked?

However, it’s not just “thirst and lust”. As Elio and Oliver start trying to draw each other out from their shells, some genuinely romantic and friendly scenes ensue such as Elio’s cute reluctance to play a certain Bach track the way Oliver wants because he decides to be a smart ass, all the while just enjoying the nice banter the two developed together.

It is also important to remember that Elio also sort of admires Oliver’s boldness and careless nature. One clear example is how Elio and his family consider themselves “Jews of Discretion” as the only Jewish people in the community, and are taken aback by Oliver’s more “direct” approach to his own Judaism. It reaches a point where Elio tries wearing his own Star of David with a golden mezuzah necklace over his shirt a few times because Oliver wore his like that and “got away” with it.

Besides helping Elio confront his “under the shirt” Judaism, Oliver also helps Elio understand his bisexuality internally:

“It would never have entered my mind because I was still under the illusion that, barring what I’d read in books, inferred from rumors, and overheard in bawdy talk all over, no one my age had ever wanted to be both man and woman — with men and women. I had wanted other men my age before and had slept with women. But before he’d stepped out of the cab and walked into our home, it would never have seemed remotely possible that someone so thoroughly okay with himself might want me to share his body as much as I ached to yield up mine.”

And the list of things of which Oliver ended up doing for Elio also includes that brief, but very important passage where Elio is pleased that Oliver pays attention to what he says since nobody in his household ever asked for his opinion on anything, so he learned how to cram as much information as he could in the least amount of words.

I need to stress that, despite his great intellectual knowledge and overall maturity, Elio is still going through the motions of his first real love. Therefore, we witness several passages of lusting, crying into pillows, a lot of wishful thinking, and overly-detailed analysis of whatever Oliver did or didn’t do. He wants to draw Oliver out to see if his feelings can be reciprocated and not just the musings of a “foolish 17-year-old boy.”

Now, seeing how things start becoming more physical as the book leads us into part II “Monet’s Berm”, it’s important to notice how the content becomes more and more adult. Don’t get me wrong though: it is always directed towards a more mature audience and not just because of how pornographic some of its prose is — e.g. how Elio compares an apricot to Oliver’s ass and keeps thinking of Oliver’s apricock during quite some time. However, it is from the first kiss forward that we really get to see far more lewd scenes like their first time together and the infamous peach incident.

Since the two start actually having sex, we have to consider the consensual and potentially problematic aspect of it. After the trailer debuted, a lot of discourse online has begun about the age difference between Elio and Oliver, which is a totally valid discussion we should have.

In fact, it becomes even more important when you consider that, while 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet can pass as 17, 30-year-old Armie Hammer is not instantly passable as 24. This becomes an issue, even if some reports say the movie doesn’t mention age, because Oliver looks far older than Elio in a visual medium where both of them engage in explicit sex. While there’s definitely something to appreciate in having two actors from Jewish descent playing Jewish characters, there’s also enough to complain about the age gap here.

When I first read the book in May, I was also quite startled about the statutory rape implications — the same anxious feelings I had when I, for example, watched Skam and was presented with a 17 and a 21-year-old dating, but worse. I researched the topic and, at least from the lawful perspective, Elio and Oliver’s relationship would not be considered illegal by Italian law. However, as many people would argue that the Constitution is not enough of a parameter to evaluate the health of a relationship, it is important to see the context in which it developed.

As I mentioned, Elio starts “craving” Oliver almost instantaneously after meeting him. He spends several pages going over the things he would like to do to Oliver, his body, the moments they share together, his clothing, his skin, and pretty much everything a 17-year-old would do and think: the book does an absolute service when it demonstrates how sexual a young adult can be even if they are not acting on their urges.

Later on, when Oliver is able to have more sincere conversations with Elio, he too confesses that he started liking Elio in a romantic/sexual way early on, but given the natural hindrances one would encounter, he did not allow himself to act on it. The moment he decided to let Elio know how he felt was his ill attempt at a shoulder rub, which was met with Elio pulling away which had Oliver feel as though he had molested the younger one. In the meantime, we see that Elio pulled away because, had he not, he would have melted like butter.

Now, here’s a tricky part: as much as Timothée Chalamet is an amazing actor, it’s pretty much impossible to show every nuance and afterthought Elio had to Oliver’s shoulder rub that is present in the novel: Aciman spends *pages* with Elio, in his overly-analytical mode, going through every single thing he wanted to express when he first leaned on Oliver’s hand and then pulled away from his touch. Therefore, at least comparing book-to-movie, I’d say that the scene becomes a lot more problematic in a visual medium without access to Elio’s erratic thought process.

“It never occurred to me that what had totally panicked me when he touched me was exactly what startles virgins on being touched for the first time by the person they desire: he stirs nerves in them they never knew existed and that produce far, far more disturbing pleasures than they are used to on their own.”

I feel like what it works in the narrative when it comes to the age-gap is that there’s hardly any power imbalance between Elio and Oliver — one could argue that, if there is an imbalance, it is on Elio being the son of Oliver’s host, but is never really a hindrance to their relationship. As portrayed by the book, both characters share similar interests and are not at a disadvantage relative to the other in terms of sexual liberation. What can be said is that Oliver is more realized that Elio when it comes to flirting, relationships, and reading other people, all the while not knowing how to properly react to his feelings for Elio.

Moving forward in their relationship, both parties are concerned with the other’s comfort and vocal consent, even if they are struggling with themselves and dealing with lust and shame at the same time. In fact, Elio deals with a lot of post-coital shame during parts of the book in which he starts regretting what he had done, but not long after it, he rethinks his position and circles back to love. Elio is simply too anxious about what he is doing and how he wants Oliver to know him to the fullest, becoming one with him, and literally calling each other by their own name.

The third part of the novel, “The San Clemente Syndrome” narrates the last three days they spent together that summer in a trip to Rome to meet with Oliver’s publisher. We spend most of the time during a book reading and a dinner where Elio is just so happy to be included and a part of Oliver’s world when no one is judging them for being so good together. At the same time, both parties are fully aware that this is the end of their short-lived relationship and that it will kill them both when it’s over.

Part four, “Ghost Spots” takes us over about twenty years of their lives. It starts right as Elio arrives back at his house and how he is seeing things without Oliver. He has a very emotional moment with his supportive dad who had figured out about Oliver and Elio. The way he speaks is very poignant as he talks about what a beautiful “friendship” the two have and that the pain Elio is going to feel is an integral part of living and loving intensely, so he shouldn’t shy away from it. In all honesty, if there was a part I wish Aciman had developed a bit more, it would be an expansion of how Elio deals with his grief, as it is a bit glossed over.

Over a few years, Oliver gets engaged almost immediately after arriving back at the US, which breaks Elio a little more even though he doesn’t quite want to admit it. Elio ends up going to college in the US, but they never really see each other until fifteen years later when Elio makes a surprise visit. The two reminisce about the past, since Elio can’t bring himself to go over to Oliver’s house, as to not see his family. Another five years and Oliver makes a short trip to Italy and the two talk about how neither one forgot anything: they may not have ended up together physically, but they were still deeply connected on an emotional level.

In the end, Call Me By Your Name is definitely not a book for everyone — I’d hardly recommend this novel to my parents, to be honest, as the more “explicit dialogue” would be a huge ‘nope’ to some people. Yet, it is such an amazingly important read to have these days and it’s highly relatable to everyone who ached with passion, lust, and love when they were young. It’s about the paralyzing power a simple crush can have on someone and how relationships can be the messiest, most intense, and yet also the most non-regrettable part of a person’s life if that’s what they want. And definitely, it is very poignant for any person in the LGBT+ spectrum who is dealing with feelings they may not know how to explain.

Not only that, but the novel has a gravitas that pulls you towards it. You don’t need to worry about having homophobia as a deterrent, which feels really fresh. Call Me By Your Name is deeply character driven and have realized characters that show kindness and politeness at every turn. It never shames their characters for their sexualities and even implies that many others were in the spectrum. It doesn’t reach peak feminism as its female characters are hardly given the chance to fully shine, but there are some great moments. This book really changed me and I hope it can do the same to anyone who reads it.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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