Since its release in 2017, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name has garnered mass critical acclaim, as much for the LGBT representation it presents by centring around a gay relationship as it did for cinematic impact. On paper, it sounds like something great. In actual practice, however, CMBYN left a bad taste in my mouth long before I was through watching it.
As it opens, it feels like the romcom we deserve, with warm fuzzy vibes of a family’s summer holiday set in sun-dappled small-town Italian scenery, flavored with young romance and the taste of fresh peach juice.
It had so much promise, which is exactly why the film was such a disappointment to me.
If you haven’t heard yet, the film is described as a “coming-of-age drama” about 17-year-old Elio Perlman, played as a believably young teenager by Timothée Chalamet, and revolves around his sexual awakening and the development of what appears to be his first relationship with a man. Oliver, the romantic interest, is a graduate student who comes to spend six weeks with the family, and was played by Armie Hammer. The quickly develop a connection that most fans apparently see as intimate and charged.
Unfortunately, I can’t.
The one aspect of the film that persistently stands out is this: the age difference.
While Chalamet easily pulls off his character’s scripted age, Hammer wears every second of the thirty-plus years of his age.
There is no mistaking the fact that his Oliver (24 years old in the novel) is very obviously much older than Elio, and this effect is only heightened by the actors’ physical appearances.
Where Chalamet is slight and almost-childish in appearance and character, there is no mistaking the fact that the figure cut by Hammer – whose look was constructed to emulate Bruce Weber as “the ’80s sexy, healthy American man” – is very clearly an adult.
It’s not easy to forget this contrast between the characters when I think about how easily a relationship like theirs can turn sour.
The distinction between Elio, who hovers on the edge between adolescence and adulthood, and Oliver, who has already grown into the latter, plays easily into one of the most damaging tropes about gay men; that they are often predators luring young boys into homosexuality.
It isn’t hard to make a case for this relationship or to prove that it is safe, sane and consensual, but the implications it makes stand for more than the story itself. On top of the notable age difference, the film makes sure to highlight that Elio is only just discovering his own body and sexuality and exploring with both men and women, while Oliver’s level of experience is not revealed, which made Elio seem equally eager and naïve by comparison.
The power dynamics created by these differences make the relationship seem dangerously unbalanced. It leaves a distinctly bad taste in the mouth and disbelief in the story.
The film makes Elio seem far more invested than Oliver is.
It makes it seem that age differences like this are okay, that older men are desirable, and that secrecy is not a warning sign. In CMBYN, when an older man begins caressing your bare shoulders without invitation, it is exciting and hot and interesting. And when Elio calls his own curiosity and experimentation “sick,” there is no dissent from Oliver but an assertion that it is good to be what Elio thinks is sick.
The hidden implication in the film is that not only is it okay for older men to engage sexually with younger men, but that this is desirable and okay. It isn’t hard to imagine an idea like this even possibly exposing younger boys to predators by framing them as romantic.
Moreover, much of the affair takes place behind the closed doors of their connecting bedrooms, under the guise of bonding.
Elio’s parents seem to be aware and approving, despite it being an affair conducted in their own house, by a considerably older man invited there as Mr. Perlman’s associate. To many, an affair like this being consensual and mutually conducted as it is in the film is an exception, not a rule.
In fact, according to the National Sex Offender Public Website, “69% of teen sexual assaults that are reported occurred in the residence of the victim, the offender, or another individual” which makes the relationship in the film seem scarier than it really is. Not only does it perpetuate the predatory gay man trope – in the news so recently after the Kevin Spacey scandal – it also romanticizes age gaps in relationships and makes them seem acceptable.
As a result, CMBYN left me feeling more than a little gross.
The portrayal of relationships with marked age gaps as romantic and obsessive love as desirable makes them seem more exciting than the healthy, balanced relationships that we need to see in media instead.
As far as LGBT representation goes, it is far from the worst.
And yet, we deserve better.