The Unicorn Scale: Call Me By Your Name
Welcome back to this queer corner of the internet, readers! Oscar races are well underway, and with that it’s time to take a long, loving look at Call Me By Your Name, this year’s most bi movie in contention. (Yes, bi! Bi bi bi bi bi. So stop calling it a gay love story, world). This tender, delicate film about a same-sex summer affair is up for three of those golden boys this year – Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. Not bad for a post-Moonlight awards season! So let’s see how it holds under our fabulous Unicorn filter.
WARNING: Like with my other US reviews, this article will contain spoilers. I want to say I can’t help myself, but really there are some films where it just drives the point home better if plot points get referred. Sorry-not-sorry. If you’re new to these parts, here’s a refresher on the rating system.
WHAT I LIKED:
There is so much to love about this nuanced, gorgeous, and touching tale of two bi characters falling for each other in the sun-drenched Italy of the 1980s. It takes its time to make it crystal clear that this is a love story, not just a queer-baiting flirtation/sexual encounter. Chalamet’s and Hammer’s performances are not only subtle and heartbreaking (seriously, how did Armie Hammer not get nominated), but their interpretations contain all the physicality of their attractions. They really inhabit Elio and Oliver respectively – their desires and their inhibitions. The screenplay is not afraid of showing these young mens’ complicated, detailed courtship, including touches, teases, and the jealousies we see all the time in hetero romances on film. And the dialogue includes gorgeous pillow talk about the title that plays with the idea of a “love that dare not speak its name.”
Not only that, but the conflict comes from them and what they perceive the world will think of them, and not some pressuring parents. On the contrary – Elio’s professorial father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and mother are very much the opposite, an extreme rarity in the context of the world at the time. I attribute that to their academic sensibilities and his father’s past. (Seriously, how did the Academy not give him a nod for his final, heartbreaking speech?) I wish every queer kid had parents like these two.
Oh, and not only that, but the experience of the film seems to have opened Armie Hammer to his own bisexuality. You can read all about that #OneofUs revelation in this thoughtful article. How can ya not love that? Lemme be the first to welcome you to the family, Armie.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:
Call Me By Your Name works so hard to establish the hetero encounters Elio and Oliver have, but I wish their female lovers had more dimensions to them. Sure, we see them naked, but we don’t get to see much personality. That would have raised the stakes – the men would be breaking people’s hearts, and not just some girls’ hearts. To point, when Elio’s girlfriend forgives him at the end, I didn’t buy it – if she had had more of a spine in her development, this could have been a satisfying confrontation. Instead it comes across as meek and accepting without earning that resolution.
I so would have loved for someone, somewhere in this to use the term “bi.” It wouldn’t be unheard of. Elio’s father works on Greco-Roman art and in academia. This was 1983, not 1883, after all. That said, this story is so incredibly gracious with how it lets its romance blossom and how his parents accept Elio’s orientation I’ll give it a pass. (Side-eyeing for the pace problems, though. Why include the scene of stopping for the glass of water?)
I also felt a little iffy about the age gap between the characters (and I wasn’t the only one – if you Google “age of consent Italy” it auto-populates to include the year the film is set. That said, when I found out Hammer’s character was supposed to be 24, I somehow felt a bit better because on screen the actor reads as a handsome 30-year-old Ken doll? Still not great, and something I will have to think about more (and probably write a different article about.)
This is gonna be hailed as a modern queer classic, and it deserves the title. The film is sensitive and authentic without getting hacky, and I really, really wish it had been around when I was growing up. I hope a lot of future baby bis get to watch it before taking a Queer Cinema class in college – it deserves to be seen and cherished.