Sex in Heaven

Call Me By Your Name a film by Luca Guadagnino.  With Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar. ****1/2

First the things I don’t like: Everybody is so good looking.  They’re all so intelligent, and talented.  This is the kind of movie where people are lying around their Italian villa in the sun, not doing much of anything, and one more or less commands another to go in and play something on the piano, and the guy does it, beautifully.  They’re also rich, apparently; in any case the host family lives in a stunning villa in a gorgeous part of Italy.  They speak multiple languages flawlessly.  The parents are open-minded and understanding to an extent that seems unbelievable.  Virtually everyone in the movie is like that.  The servants seem absolutely delighted to be working for the rich people they work for; they love every minute of it.  They’re all one happy family.

It is said in Buddhism that of the six realms one can occupy, the human realm is best, because it inspires one to practice.  The heavenly realm is not so great, because it has no such motivation.  The people in this movie seem to be in heaven (though human beings can make anything into hell).

I should have guessed as much when I saw James Ivory listed as the writer (though he adapted the screenplay from a novel).  And really, at some point, won’t the people in Hollywood (or wherever this movie was made) realize that ugly people fall in love too?

All that having been said, Call Me By Your Name is one of the most unusual and sensitive love stories I’ve ever seen.  I’ve never seen a movie quite like it.  Oliver (Armie Hammer) has come to the villa to study with a professor named Mr. Perelman (Michael Stuhlbarg, who seems to have been in every movie made in 2017).  I realize I’m rather dense, but it was never absolutely clear to me what discipline they were studying, or exactly what Oliver was doing there; he seems to be doing a post-doc at the beautiful Italian villa that his professor owns, though I’ve never heard of such a thing.  Early on, Professor Perelman tests Oliver with a matter of etymology, and Oliver passes with absolutely flying colors, showing a kind of erudition that was astonishing to me (though perhaps it’s not that astonishing in a home that also harbors a concert-level musician).  Usually a person with that kind of erudition has spent his whole life in library stacks, is skinny, speaks with a stammer, and has acne and a bad case of dandruff.  Armie Hammer looks as if he’s never spent a day in a library.

Oliver is not only good looking, he’s also the most self-confident human being on the face of the earth, crashing into bed on the first evening and skipping dinner, though he is a guest; coming down to breakfast the next morning and eating his soft boiled egg in ten seconds flat (though not getting any yolk on his shirt, as I most certainly would have); riding into town on what is apparently his second day in Italy and sitting down to a card game in a bar with a bunch of men who seem to have known him all his life.  And of course the language isn’t a problem for him.  I have not often encountered such good looks and intelligence and confidence in a single human being.  I’m not sure I ever have.

Everybody falls in love with him, all the young women in the town, also—though we don’t realize it immediately—Mr. Perelman’s son Elio (Timothee Chalamet).  Elio isn’t quite in the good-looking class of Oliver, though he’s a great looking young guy, and he’s only 17.  And though Elio too seems to be an incredible prodigy, speaking several languages flawlessly, playing music beautifully, reading extensively (James Conrad is a beach read for him), transcribing music in his spare time (this is the kind of movie where you ask somebody what he does with himself all day, and he says he transcribes music, and you don’t even blink an eye, as if that’s completely normal.  Nobody ever says, What the fuck?  How did you get so talented?  What are you doing transcribing music at the age of 17?), and though his parents adore him and are physically affectionate with him all the time (he never seems to pass his mother in the hallway that he doesn’t hug her and kiss her.  You did that with your mother when you were 17, right?), he lacks confidence in himself as a sexual being, perhaps partly because he knows or suspects he’s gay and partly just because he’s 17.  That actually seemed to be a charming aspect of him as a character.  He therefore reacts by resenting Oliver, seeing him as arrogant, which in a way he is (though I would say he stays on this side of arrogance by a hair.  He’s just very confident and charming).  He’s grouchy and almost kind of angry around him.  He’s getting ready to be rejected.

And then he isn’t.  I guess I should have called for a spoiler alert, but if anyone has seen the publicity for this movie and doesn’t suspect that these two guys get it on, they need to open their eyes.

The actual scenes, of Elio feeling what he feels and trying to get his nerve up, taking a little detour by awkwardly romancing a (beautiful, naturally) young woman who instantly falls for him, being grouchy around Oliver, finally approaching him and declaring himself, Oliver being receptive but wanting—as the older man, and the guest of the household—to be careful, then the two young men getting together and enjoying it, with Oliver being careful the young man still wants it and likes it, since this may be his first time: all of that is beautifully done.  It’s the kind of thing I haven’t seen before in a Hollywood movie, with two male lovers.  It’s not the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name; it’s speaking its name almost casually, as if it has every right to do that.  That’s what seems revolutionary.

But I would also have to say that that middle part of the movie goes on too long.  My wife thought so too.  I thought it was never going to end, and wondered what would bring it to an end.  Nothing bad happens.  The whole thing just runs its course.  That seems revolutionary too.

In the Sixties there was a soft core porn film named Emmanuelle, which was famously about a beautiful woman in some beautiful setting having a love affair that was too beautiful to be believed.  I actually didn’t see the movie.  I just heard about it.  But that’s what this movie was like.  It was like soft core porn.  It was beautiful.  It was sensuality for its own sake.  Without excuses.

To top it all off, once the whole thing is over, Mr. Perelman has a talk with his son that is so understanding, so beautifully stated, so much the perfect thing for a father to say to his son in this situation, that it is probably the single best scene in the movie.  Though the long scene that runs while the credits are showing, where we basically just see Elio’s face, is also a stunner.

I’m glad that this movie was made.  I enjoyed watching it, and was heartened by it, though I wish it had been twenty minutes shorter.  And I hope that Hollywood will move on to the next great frontier in gay filmmaking.  Ugly.  Or at least ordinary.