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Call Me By Your Name: Movie Review

TW: mention of abusive and coercive relationships

Call Me By Your Name was nominated under four categories for the Oscars this year: Best Picture, Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet), Best Original Song (Mystery of Love by Sufjan Stevens) and Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory)– the last of which it actually won. The film is a movie adaptation of the 2007 coming-of-age novel of the same name by André Aciman. It is set in Northern Italy in the 1980s and tracks the burgeoning relationship between 17-year old Elio Perlman and his father’s 24-year old assistant: an American graduate student who has come to live with them. While the praises the film has received in terms of its direction and the exceptional performances of its lead actors has been overwhelming, there have been some critics who have accused the film of romanticizing an “exploitative relationship between a grown man and a teenager,” and of being overly idealistic in its portrayal of the hardships (or lack thereof) that gay couples face.

For me, watching the film felt like a transcendent experience: it depicted the intricacies of human emotions with deft skill, against an enchantingly languid setting– all of which was tied together with the soft melancholic music playing in the background. As I watched the film, the scenes were so vivid that I could almost feel the fan myself, slowly whirring above me as I lay in bed reading a novel, enveloped in the thick summer air– scenes which, funnily, reminded me of my own lazy summers in Kolkata, India: an unlikely connection between two parts of the world that could not be more different.

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Elio’s forbidden attraction to Oliver towards the beginning of the film, meanwhile, was reminiscent of the deep crushes I had on boys throughout middle school and high school– when I thought that my parents would be livid if they found out, and I would most certainly die of embarrassment if the object of my affection discovered my feelings for him (although, of course, the social stigma that Elio and Oliver would face, being homosexual, makes their fear very real and legitimate). Elio’s distinct scene with the peach is symbolic of the exciting and unexpected introduction to sexual desires and sexuality that arises within most teenagers and young adults at some point in their life (albeit, often without an actual fruit involved), as well as the confusion that comes with it.

 

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It is not beyond understanding that some critics have labeled the movie to be too idealistic. Elio’s life is nearly too sweet to be true (and one that any art lover would salivate over): he is immersed in books and music, with endless time to pursue his interests and hobbies, spending lazy days splashing around in glittering pools, dating and falling in love, going on archeological expeditions with his parents, and taking trips across Europe with Oliver (who he refers to as Elio– his own name). Arguably, however, what is most extraordinary is the readiness with which Elio’s parents accept his relationship with Oliver– and the knowing looks they pass one another upon registering it. This sort of silent acceptance is nearly utopian, and something that is inconceivable for most gay people today– let alone back in the 1980s.

That said, nothing presented in the movie is strictly impossible. I suspect that living in a small town in Italy is equivalent to being in a small bubble away from the rest of the world, and given the intellectual and philosophical nature of Elio’s parents (who are professors) in the movie– it is not beyond belief that they are incapable of understanding certain things better than the people of their time. In my opinion, the movie is both relatable and idealistic in the sense that it feels like a memory, but one that has grown sweeter with time– and, perhaps, wasn’t quite that sweet to begin with. In fact, the lack of opposition to their relationship made the movie, in my view, all the more charming. If this movie had been made with a focus around the stigma that the LGBT community usually faces– the movie would have become about two people overcoming odds the world throws at them, and the characteristic feature of the characters would have become their sexuality (similar to how most movies set in supposedly third-world countries end up capitalizing on the poverty that people from those countries have to overcome). By placing the characters in a bubble of their own , and in a visually perfect setting, the director gives the LGBT community a movie that the straight community has never had a scarcity of: a beautiful, all-consuming tale of first love and the pain and excitement that comes with it.

Some critics have taken issue with and condemned the movie for displaying a relationship between a minor (Elio was 17 years old) and a character who was seven years older than him. Their argument lies in the idea that the movie was complicit in condoning and romanticizing an abusive relationship with disturbing power dynamics— an accusation that is a lot more difficult to discard and too important to brush aside. The fact that the film is set in the 1980s, when most countries had set the age of consent much lower than the now nearly universally accepted age of 18, does not excuse the fact that the film does not touch upon the way this age difference may have hurt Elio’s character psychologically.  While I enjoyed the movie, it is important to be aware of critiques like these given the prevalence of abusive relationships and increased experiences of violence or coercion in the LGBT community. I think it is important for issues such as these to be addressed in how films are representing LGBT relationships, given that media can widely inform young minds and the messages they pick up about relationships and power in relationships as well. We have a responsibility as consumers to question issues like this and ask questions that hold producers and writers accountable, because if you really think about it what would have been so bad about adding a year or two to the character’s age?

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