Long review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)
By Edo Muric
Why do I think that Call Me By Your Name (2017), scripted and produced by James Ivory, of the Maurice (1987) fame and directed by Luca Guadagnino, is the most important film of the year? Why is I Am Love (2009), also by Guadagnino, one of the most important films of the new millennium? Because both films are eventually about the things that matter the most – love. And they approach it in a highly philosophical and profound manner, basically positing that intimacy and love are the same as human identity.
Let us first look at I Am Love, in order to understand how he builds up this idea. On surface it is a love story between an older married woman and a younger man (which on paper sounds like a melodrama). Unlike in any other film with such theme, it is not about a humanist defence of such romance (Douglas Sirk's films come to mind), or an utter problematisation (like in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2000). In fact, in I Am Love we are never sure what it is that fuels the romance - it is something the film is not trying to explore whatsoever.
Tilda Swinton plays Emma, a Russian woman, married to a wealthy industrialist in Italy. She starts an affair with a considerably younger cook Antonio, who was doing catering for one of their family reunions. He is also the best friend of her son Edo. Yet what is so special about Antonio? The film never tries to illuminate that question, nor does it try to make us co-experience the joy that he is giving to Emma - except on a rudimentary level. Instead, it keeps the intimacy of the lovers intact. Which is not to say that it shies away from showing erotic moments, on the contrary. But intimacy is something different than that, even though it can or does by the rule incorporate sexuality.
And the film puts us in a rather peculiar position. We get to see how delighted, free and happy Emma becomes – but unlike in other films, where we are used to be put in a position of identification with the lovers, and to precisely see and experience their emotions, here her intimate point of view towards him remains obscure. And even more important question posed by the film is why does she suddenly feel free to open up about her long suppressed Russian identity. How does one lead to the other?
The spark of this romantic adventure starts at the moment when her daughter reveals to her that she is in a relationship with a woman, which influences the mother to open herself up for a potential affair with Antonio. Indicatively, the girl is showing her the photos of her girlfriend and telling her how beautiful she finds her to be, yet here Guadagnino refuses to show us what she is seeing. It is because the photos illustrate her perception and her intimacy, which we are unlikely to understand, just as we are unlikely to understand the connection between her mother and the young cook. Guadagnino eventually positions this intimacy inside of a literal, mysterious cave in the mountains, where the lovers finally end up, rendering it not only hidden from our view, but also a spiritual and profound element of love.
The lesbian relationship of her daughter is contrasted with Emma's own passionless and probably loveless marriage, which came to be as a sort of duty or perceived immanence, based more on societal rules and traditions and perhaps even cynicism, than on the possibility of ever discovering the mystery of love. Not only did it leave her loveless, it also erased her innermost identity. In I Am Love there is no socio-political condemnation of a patriarchial society (whatsoever, all the wealth and the actual freedom the characters experience, presented in the film, owes much to it) and it is not a film about oppression of the unliberated female sexuality. Guadagnino is certainly more interested in something more profound and universal than that, which is why the story consciously removes all political and social obstacles and allows the female protagonist to become the homo philosophicus of the story. She was not forced to do anything. It is all about her choice and the conflict itself is more of a philosophical realisation than an actual dramatic conflict.
And certainly, it does not come from the outside. What she eventually does is take the example of her daughter's blossoming romance, which by its very nature has no societal attachments or meaning beyond of its own self-containment. Same-sex love, therefore, becomes the model for all true love and for all human transcendence. Only such model of love allows the final constitution of one's identity. It is the ultimate intimacy, it carries with it, that provides for it. Identity thrives within intimacy. The innermost makes sense only on such rare occasions when shared with another person. At some point ultimate intimacy becomes the same as true love.
Cue in Call Me By Your Name, the film where the themes of identity and intimacy reach its highest point. In fact, what on the surface is a coming-of-age drama is actually a deeply profound, even more universal story of the relation between the ultimate intimacy and identity. Like I Am Love, but even more so, this theme is already there in the title of the film and of Andre Aciman's masterful novel, on which it was based. There is no greater intimacy than when the lovers become one in more than a physical sense. The choice of same sex lovers as a center of this story was therefore unavoidably inherent to this theme (only two men or two women can switch names and still leave the core of their identity untouched). But paradoxically, only by being so specifically homosexual, can this story also be universal and subsequently interpolated to (however not retold as) a heterosexual relationship. This question has even created a bit of a controversy in the light of the film's premiere. People have instantly realised that with this film they have something beautiful on their hands. Some are, however, reluctant to accept that something great and universal can also be gay, just as some on the opposite side of the argument reluctantly share rare gay narratives with the mainstream.
Ironically, both sides are right, for, as already said, the film is both inescapably gay and at the same time definitely a universal story of love. An additional key is in the fact that gay romances have been the original universal stories of love since the time of Plato and only with the onset of the Christian thought have they been pushed aside.
A bit like an Erich Rohmer film, Call Me By Your Name shows us a shamelessly elitistic world of multilingual intellectuals, artists and their summer villas , as well as a beautiful world of art and academics with in-house servants. The family's teenage son Ellio (Timothee Chalamet) pursues Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is a doctoral student and his father's assistant during the six weeks of the summer vacation in Northern Italy. Slowly their relationships starts to blossom and, again like in I Am Love, to become almost mysterious and profoundly intimate. Instead of the mountain cave, it is the villa in which they spend nights and dawns, and where they get to encounter the mystery of love. It is an almost a pagan temple (filled with Greek and Roman archeology, art and philosophy) and it is a place which seals the holiness of what they have found in each other.
Unlike in recent gay-themed, yet absurdly patronising, Moonlight (2016), the societal and historical aspects of this same-sex romance, which is taking place in the early 1980s, are almost completely absent. The film rightly doesn't even concern itself with the age difference of the two lovers, or the circumstances of how it came to be that they got an eye for each other, basically from the moment they met. What we have are two men who, through the act of love, become one. And they become one in many other ways as well. They are both Jewish and somewhat burdened by it. More importantly, they are both men, which guarantees even more intimacy, because the otherness of the opposite gender is not in a position to complicate and enforce roles. Their love has no societal standing or meaning, beyond of what it does to both of them, which makes it even more pure. Through it, they know one another, without knowing everything about each other (it is never sure what either is thinking about the other one and what they are going to do in the end). They learn about each other, however, and learn to be like each other; for they are not just lovers. Both of them being men, are each other's role models.
They are not the only members of this masculine club that they have found themselves in. Elio's father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a wise philosopher-like character, who is overseeing the events and almost pairing the two off at some point.
In the end, the intimacy is incredibly deep and their titular name switch becomes a symbolic reminder of what they have and how it will forever overshadow everything they will have in their lives afterwards.
At some point, Oliver discusses the philosophy of Heidegger and is almost frustrated by some of it. This leads us to another director who is also concerned with the mystery of love and used to teach Heidegger in France. His name is Terrence Malick. For Malick, love is something that has to do with faith and is floating somewhere out there in the universe, independently of us, as a completely unknowable magic that both does and does not exist (an agnostic view), and only rarely puts a spell on us, if it ever does. In To the Wonder (2012) love is basically a miraculous thing which is almost literally caught with a glimpse of an eye. You see it because it comes from elsewhere (from God). It is outside of us, and like the divine, the signs of it are supposedly all around us and can be found only by those who strongly believe in it.
Guadagnino, on the other hand, offers a rather secular vision of love. For him love is inside of us and is deeply intertwined, not with the celestial, but with our very own identity. In other words, we are the masters of love; We are love itself; Love is what constitutes our very being. And since it is inside of us, it becomes immune to the space and time distances. It is omnipresent and will last as long as we are on this Earth. (132 min.)