When I watch a movie as a reviewer, there’s always one question I like to ask myself: Did this story need to be told? More often than not, at least where gay cinema is concerned, the answer is, unfortunately, no
Such was the case with Call Me By Your Name, the story of Elio Perlman, a beautiful, privileged, white teen boy who’s forced to discover the tragedy of heartbreak after a whirlwind romance with the beautiful, privileged, slightly older young white man who’s staying with his family for the summer, based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name.
I wanted to like this story. Set in the early 1980’s, a time when I was only a few years younger than the 17 yr old main character, it pulled on my nostalgic longing for how my childhood could’ve been. Elio seems to have it all: a loving, supportive, international, multilingual family, the beautiful Italian countryside to shirtlessly sulk about in with languorous lovesickness, and perfect skin. He’s the ultimate, disaffected, affluent teenager.
When he’s asked “What do you do around here?” by Oliver, the 20-something American grad student visiting Elio’s archaeologist father, Elio casually replies “Wait for the summer to end,” without even a hint of irony.
And yet, at the end, I couldn’t help but feel let down by this story. We don’t live in a world where, with a dearth of quality queer storytelling, we needed to hear this one. Despite the overwhelmingly positive attention the film had garnered from critics, it seems an especially egregious gaffe to have Call Me By Your Name follow on the heels of such amazing queer stories as almost universally lauded Tangerine and Oscar-winner Moonlight. Both of those films told stories that audiences needed to hear. Call Me By Your Name does not.
It’s a lavish movie, beautifully filmed on location in only the most scenic parts of Northern Italy. Seriously, just watching the love affair Director of Photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom had with that achingly gorgeous old Italian manor house next to an apricot grove almost made the experience worth my time.
Call Me By Your Name recalled, for me, another lovingly crafted yet, ultimately, vapid piece of storytelling: Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Both films seemed to favor style over substance. Both films are only beautiful on the surface, much like cinematic puff pastry: Golden and delicious on the outside, but ultimately just filled with a lot of hot air.
As with A Single Man, one significant criticism of Call Me By Your Name is its casting. Both are queer stories with queer characters, so where are the queer actors to play them?
Timothée Chalamet is clearly a gifted actor, of course. As Elio, he imparts well the longing and angst of a privileged teen. His Golden Globe nomination and SAG award are well deserved in that respect. And yet, would it have been too much to ask to find a queer person to play this part? The same can be said for Armie Hammer in the role of Oliver, Elio’s lover. It’s hard to suspend disbelief. Moments meant to be magical, such as the two kissing and flirting next to Elio’s secret watering hole, fall flat knowing that Chalamet only really does that sort of thing with Selena Gomez when he’s at home.
With so little money being spent on the making of queer-themed films, it doesn’t seem too much to ask that filmmakers reach a little harder to find queer actors for these roles. It seems especially unreasonable for a queer director not to have done so, in a world where so many queer people struggle to find any acceptance, let alone positive recognition. And yet, just like Tom Ford failed to do so when casting Collin Firth and Nicholas Hoult in A Single Man, so did Luca Guadagnino with Chalamet and Hammer.
Complicating the casting further was it’s total whiteness. Am I supposed to believe that there was not a single person of color in Lombardy in 1983? Not even one?
While Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema, its story is ultimately empty and unfulfilling, and would’ve better served as a 20 minute video tour of Northern Italy. Combined with such problematic casting, it makes for a story that just didn’t need to be told.