Call Me by Your Name (2017) – the most recent film by Luca Guadagnino – is a gay romance set in the early years of the AIDs epidemic. Homophobia is almost completely absent. It’s set in Italy at a time of polarisation and political assassinations. This is acknowledged through caricaturish debate between an Italian couple, posters for the PSI and a glib comment about a bust of Mussolini. It’s about young people, at a time of shrinking opportunity and security. These young people are waited on by a biddable housemaid (she’s part of the family!).
One of the functions of the maid is to regulate passages between characters – literally opening and closing doors, allowing bodies to be seen and relationships to develop. She’s a really existing character, really interacting with the plot and themes, except in all the features that make a character human.
But there are proper humans elsewhere. The lovers, Elio and Oliver, are carefully drawn. Oliver is voracious and sensual. We know this because he eats a boiled egg in 30 seconds flat; he shuffles his feet with his eyes closed to The Psychedelic Furs; and, although he’s a great scholar, he prefers swimming and volleyball to reading. Elio is the arrogant youth, loved by his family and a holidaying French girl. Where Oliver is bestial, Elio is refined. He transcribes classical music, reads, speaks fluent Italian, and listens to stories in German. Guadagnino’s idealised world, where high culture is matched by high compassion, further abstracts his scenarios from reality. He thinks the sophistication adds texture to his picture; it adds nothing.
There are things that the film captures well: the provisional freedom and spontaneity of holidays; the arrogance of youth, when pleasure feels like an entitlement; and the ever-collapsing boundaries between play, competition and flirtation. It’s frequently beautiful, finding moments of intimacy that are often overlooked. And I have no desire for a cinema of – inevitably simplistic – materialism. For all its faults, Call Me By Your Name is better than I, Daniel Blake (2016). There’s room for stories of love, unfettered by the material. But emotional reality and material reality are imbricated, sliding across each other to create our worlds. Guadagnino has to accept that if his story fails to correspond to this mixing, it will also fail to resonate with those who know their emotional lives emerge out of, and merge with, a very different material reality to the rarefied ones of Oliver and Elio.