Watching Luca Guadagnino’s astonishing Call Me By Your Name is a moving experience. But watching it in our current cultural moment — one in which new revelations of sexual harassment and assault, some of them involving minors, are springing up literally every day — also feels inescapably strange. The film’s love story is so intoxicating, its characters so achingly full of empathy and tenderness, that it seems to take place in a world where sexual coercion is not only nonexistent, but unthinkable. Having to leave this idyllic environment at the end of the film and re-enter the world we actually live in is almost painful.
Timothée Chalamet plays Elio, a 17-year-old living in the Italian countryside for the summer with his parents. Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an archaeology professor who invites a grad student to stay with the family each summer and act as his assistant. This summer’s guest is 24-year-old Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. Oliver is tall, handsome, and strikingly uninhibited. He doesn’t hesitate to correct an inaccurate claim made by his hosts, or eat greedily in front of them, or dance enthusiastically by himself in a nightclub. This quality initially irritates the comparatively aloof Elio, but the two soon strike up a friendship, which inevitably grows into infatuation and then a full-blown love affair.
Call Me By Your Name is almost overwhelmingly sensual. Not just sensual like “sexy in a classy way” (though it is definitely that), but in its actual engagement of all of the audience’s senses. The cinematography, sound design, and art direction are all so lush that you feel enveloped by them, as though the movie were happening to you. The hot summer sun, the wind, the smell of old books, the sounds of the family’s old house, all feel heightened and hyper-real. When Elio and Oliver actually touch for the first time, it generates an electrical current that runs the through the audience too.
What’s barely commented on by any character, or by the film itself, is the age difference between Elio and Oliver. While a relationship between a 17-year-old and 24-year-old would technically be legal in most of the U.S. (and definitely in Italy, where the age of consent is apparently 14), it still sets off alarm bells for many people, and not without reason. Consent laws are an attempt to impose some kind of reasonable, shared standard on an area of life that frequently defies such categorizations. No one truly believes that a person’s readiness to engage in sex suddenly springs into existence with a clap of thunder on a certain birthday. But people can be gross and predatory and exploitative of those less worldly than them, so we had to put some kind of rule in place, even if it doesn’t fit every situation.
The relationship between Elio and Oliver is, without a doubt, not predatory, exploitative, or abusive. They’re remarkably kind to each other. In fact, all of the film’s characters are incredibly mature and considerate of each other, not in a way that feels unrealistic or sanitized, but in a way that’s . . . I want to say aspirational? When Elio’s father learns about the relationship between his son and his student, his response isn’t anger or disgust, but a kind of wistful, vicarious nostalgia. Elio and Oliver both have other sexual relationships during the course of the summer, but this doesn’t cause the level of strife or drama that it would in almost any other movie. All the characters, even the teenage ones, are capable of communicating and forgiving and remaining friends. Pain emerges as a necessary part of desire and coming of age, but it never eclipses the soaring joy those experiences also bring. It’s a welcome reminder not only of the cinematic power of sexuality, but that its power can be wielded so effectively without being cruel to its characters.