First Love

Under the genial warm sun and on top of the ragged grass, beside the calm summer breeze and rhythms of mother nature, life continues its fermentation while we ponder the intricacies that life entails. It is wondrous, really, that we only know so much about ourselves until we are challenged by the peculiar concept of love, fornicating and boiling within, ready to test our beliefs. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name asks us these questions to know what our imperfections and more importantly, insecurities, are. Therein lies a certain conversation between director and audience, which promotes the film’s title, calling your significant other by your own name, and vice versa. It is an act of spilling our guts out, in an effort to further our knowledge about ourselves. We spend so much time worrying about what people think, what society thinks, that we often forsake what we think. The Italian director’s film throbs the heartstrings, but is also an art of seduction, daring its characters to want what they don’t want. We see the story of a gay romance, and better yet, a nostalgic coming-of-age narrative.

2017’s Call Me By Your Name is another film to be adapted by filmmakers, owing its inspiration to André Aciman’s 2007 novel. 17-year-old Elio Perlman is witty, lanky and at the crosshairs of adolescence and adulthood. Apart from reading musty books, he is also quite the gifted musician, well-versed in piano especially. “Somewhere in northern Italy”, Elio and his linguistically-virtuosic Jewish family revel under the aforementioned genial warm sun, drinking and smoking, enjoying the comforts of their spacious villa. The serenity is “disturbed” by a visit from a scholar, courtesy of the annual hosting by the Perlmans. 24-year-old Oliver appears like a humanoid version of the father’s pre-Hellenistic sculptures, a stereotypical American jock. The serenade of earthly gospels turns into a beautiful runtime of intellectual conversations, musical high-minds and emotional manipulations.

Love is unfathomable. My mom describes it as the greatest expression of the human condition, an experiment to toy with our metaphysical senses. Experiences shape our understanding of the world and dictate the subjective logics of our next moves, while adding colour to the ever popular question: What is the meaning of life? In fact, this is the beauty of the human condition, to ask these philosophical questions. Love seems to transpire in the most unlikeliest of places. Even though their initial interactions are quick, irritated responses to admittedly curt “Later”s, a peculiar sensation embeds itself between Elio and Oliver, something that demands more from obligatory nods, plutôt an inexplicable magnetism. Their experience is erotic, not the type you would expect from a porno, but more titillating; as Elio’s father so eloquently describes.

…dare you to desire them.

It’s been a long time since a film manages to evoke this method of human sentiment. “We don’t choose who we love” is a blasé expression, given for the romanticization of our strangest infatuations, similar to the love stories found in Midnight In Paris or In The Mood For Love. Guadagnino emphasizes the sheer quality of his characters while simultaneously offering a world-building like no other. After all, outside the obvious gay storyline, the important theme here is coming of age, rather than coming out.

And yet, the journey to such a liberating theme is a tumultuous one. In Elio’s case, he begins by sealing the deal with a française, Marzia. The fascination is not mutual, Marzia obviously more invested than he is, though you can’t exactly say that Elio is a serial dater. This is perhaps the greatest difference between Elio and Oliver; their gulf in confidence per se. Unlike the American’s outward swagger, Elio is more reserved, timid even. He dislikes and labels the “Later”s as rude, although a deep part within him covets after it. You can’t blame him for that either, since he is still in the midst of his teenage years, hormones raging and more importantly, uncertainty.

Time travels back to 1983, an era where homosexuality is practically considered the equivalent of sin, much less the acronyms LBTGQ+, society frowns upon anything less than straight. Elio and Oliver’s obligatory close proximity to each other tests the patience they have to society’s adherence, resulting in their limited interactions. The film does well to establish an erotic atmosphere, where every scene involving the two has a hidden meaning. Of course, what stems from them probing around, proceeds to become a more evident act of love. Every bit of “manly” physique Oliver flexes, is returned by a gradually stronger dose of sass by Elio. Take away the fact that this is a gay relationship, many people would describe this as a cute couple. Time progresses, and societal norms are always under scrutiny. Men are from Venus, women (in this case other men), from Mars. The blooming stages of love is a series of curiosity, something that we enjoy pursuing, whatever our orientations may be.

Armie Hammer should be commended for his portrayal, but this is well and truly Timothée Chalamet’s stage. To openly play two gay characters requires professionalism, a trait that these two actors have conveyed. For a young actor like Chalamet, his performance is an absolute revelation. It takes a special kind of talent to carve out the idea of Elio Perlman to such a genuine degree, a character known for his quirkiness and insecurity. We poke fun at the weird swimming trunk and peach scenes from the young boy, and even though they are uncanny, Call Me By Your Name is a documentary of Elio. This is his journey to becoming comfortable with his sexuality. Aside from the dim-witted teenage exploration scenes, Chalamet injects his compassion into a character countervailed by his pathos. True, it is a strange love, not the gay part, but rather by merit of circumstance. First love is often a strange sensation because we imagine ourselves at the forefront of a sophisticated love, ready to conquer everything thrown in our path. I’m going out on a limb and guessing that most first loves don’t last forever, and watching the end credits sequence of Elio’s worst fears actualize, Oliver marrying someone else, parallels ours too. The fragile tear ducts overlooking the fire, a reflection cursed with reminiscence, the good and now the bad moments, are eerily similar to our first breakups.

And before you know it, your heart’s worn out. And as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.

Nostalgic, critics describe the film, and for good reason. Love is an essential part to how we differentiate ourselves from the animals. The human condition teaches us who we are, making us realize that outside this dreamy Italian landscape, we too are subject to the same emotional tortures of Elio and Oliver. That, is the strength of Call Me By Your Name, and the epitome of the nostalgic element in filmmaking.

Thus concludes Guadagnino’s beautiful masterpiece. It is a film that finds the correct balance between erotic and romantic, a factor much more important than the fact that it’s two men shagging. In a world where we are constantly bumping into strangers, there is a lingering feeling (like those long, dragged-out shots) of fate at work. Under the infinite powers of this decidedly European perspective, two cultured strangers go through the chronic stages of a forbidden romance, until the heartbreak is shared by characters and audiences alike. This is straight out of Eros’ cruel playbook, which we all subscribe to avidly. Call Me by Your Name is finally, a shoutout to everyone who has ever had the privilege of knowing love, then feel the magic of it transcends.

Diversity

To all the filmmakers who are going to make a film involving gay or lesbian relationships or from a bigger picture, diverse films featuring other races, do see Call Me by Your Name as a reference. Films are good because of their themes and so on, not by the surface-level catcalling. I’ve seen queer cinema receive terrible ratings, not because the audiences are homophobic or something else, but because their only claim to fame lies literally in the fact that they are “diverse”. The love story of Elio and Oliver is at heart, a story about love. Advertising the fact that it is a gay romance should not influence critics and audience. I hope that this film in particular can be a stepping stone for improvement in this regard.

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