In his 2015 article "Till Death Do They Part", Variety writer Peter Debruge observes how "fate punishes" gay characters in mainstream cinema.
"Hollywood has given us more and better movies about the LGBT experience in recent years, but the upsetting truth is, the vast majority of mainstream cinema still presents gay characters as victims," he writes. "Whereas straight romantic couples have long been allowed to live happily ever after onscreen (aka a “Hollywood ending”), their gay counterparts haven’t been so fortunate, nearly always dying of AIDS, hate crimes or suicide, rather than riding off into the sunset with their partners.
"The operating assumption," he continues, "seems to be that straight audiences won’t care about these relationships if handled in a conventionally uplifting way. Format them as tragedy and we shed a tear when bigots rape and murder trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, or when a deranged assassin robs gay San Francisco official Harvey Milk of true love at the end of Milk... In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks’ otherwise healthy relationship with Antonio Banderas is cut short when he succumbs to AIDS; in A Single Man, a grief-stricken Colin Firth contemplates suicide after his partner’s death, decides against it, and then suffers a fatal heart attack."
I'd like to think of myself as above narrative conditioning, but halfway through Luca Guadanigno’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel I felt myself bracing for disaster, guessing at what the inevitable punishment of fate would be.
Set in a summer-emptied village in Northern Italy in the early 80s, Call Me By Your Name is pretty simple: Every summer, a professor of archeology invites an American student to stay with his family. The professor is Michael Stuhlbarg (whose performance here, after watching season 3 of Fargo, should cement him as one of the best character actors working right now), the student, Oliver, is Armie Hammer (just one of him this time), and Elio, the seventeen-year-old son who loses his room to Oliver, is Timothée Chalamet.
It's a languid, shirts-off-hot summer, and Elio is bored out of his mind. His torpid days consist of sunning, swimming, reading, transcribing music; in the evenings, he begrudgingly plays piano for a bevy of visitors to the villa and teenages around with the other seasonal teenagers. Oliver interrupts that boredom, at first as a subject of annoyance -- Elio finds him arrogant and disrespectful, ie America -- and then, gradually, as a subject of interest.
Call Me By Your Name is, first and foremost, a coming-of-age story, an erudite, earnest version of summer lovin', maybe, but summer lovin' none the less. Those looking to escape the fickle and brutal winter we've been having lately could do no better than to warm themselves in this sweaty, kicking-the-sheets-off summer of Northern Italy. The film itself is unhurried, happy to bask in its weather and environs, and certainly not rushing the slow dance of attraction.
It's spoiling nothing to mention the affair between Oliver and Elio. Part of the joy of Call Me By Your Name is watching, as Elio's parents do, the inevitable come stubbornly to fruition. While of course time and place prevents the affair from being as -- excuse me -- al fresco as the dinners at the villa, the drama of the fling comes more from within than without. Guadanigno’s film is not about the struggles and punishing fates of the outside world, but about the difficult, universal interiority of falling in love.
By dint of the summer lovers being men, I spent much of the movie waiting for convention to kick in, for the format to become tragic. Don't let those expectations creep into your viewing of Call Me By Your Name. It's a film of intelligence and respect and love, and anyone who's ever had to deal with any combination of those qualities knows that they can make life dramatic enough without any outside help from the brutal fates.