Because I am a Screen Actors Guild-AFTRA member, this is the time of year where my union sends out "for-your-consideration" screener copies of films that are nominated for a SAG Award so us members can vote in the award ceremony. And I was thrilled when this 2017 film showed up in my mailbox since I had been meaning to see it in theatres (trying to find time to attend the cinema with my life schedule can be challenging).
Directed by Luca Guadagnino (who directed the sensuous "I Am Love" with Tilda Swinton, previously here) and starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, this miracle of a film based on the novel by André Aciman of the same name got under my skin and hit me hard. If I write about a film for "Oh, By The Way," I try not to reveal too much about the film since I believe my readers should experience a film the way the filmmaker intended it to be seen, to unfold as a dream. But I find I cannot write meaningfully about this film without speaking about the plot itself. So please be warned, there are complete major spoilers ahead. If you have not yet seen the film, please wait until you have done so, not only so you can absorb the plot freely, but because what I am about to write will not make sense otherwise.
In the summer of 1983, seventeen year-old Elio holidays with his family in their inherited villa in northern Italy. He is, for seventeen, extremely bright: staggeringly well-read, able to speak three languages fluently, and adept at classical music on multiple instruments. He comes by such intellect and talent naturally as his mother speaks four languages fluently and his father is an archaeologist whose specialty is ancient Greco-Roman sculpture. As part of his father's work, the family invite an American graduate student every summer for six weeks for an internship, to help the father with research and cataloging artifacts. So when handsome Oliver arrives for the internship, Elio is swept away by an attraction that one can only assume by his age is something new to him.
And the pair begin a delicate relationship...
Publicity for this film has made much of the universality of this story, that it is not specifically a gay love story but a story of first love anyone can relate to. While that may be true for some, as a gay man who was nineteen years old in 1983, I can tell you that this film is definitely a gay love story, and because of that, and because of parameters that accompany gay life--or that used to--this is also about a very specific kind of pain only known to our community. For years and years, gay men have looked for themselves to be represented and mirrored in books, films, art. I myself have grasped at gay support or bit characters, desperately searching for validation, for visibility...and been disappointed with the sub-par genre of gay films that existed in the 90s and 00s. But things change and this is the first film I can recall that thoroughly does the job: it absolutely, completely feels like a real mainstream film where gay characters and events in their lives are central to the film. And the best part is it does not feel like a "gay" film.
I have not read the source novel for the film, so I can only respond to what was presented to me in the film. I will say that I was a bit surprised at how slowly their relationship develops (they initially display a reluctance toward each other in order to hide attraction) which only serves to heighten the suddenness of their eventual coupling and how short it is. The languid pace of their affair is echoed by a lovely languid pace of storytelling in the film thanks not only to director Guadagnino but to screenwriter James Ivory of Merchant and Ivory fame. The languidness works on other levels as well, echoing the languid pace of rural life in northern Italy. The photography and production design are lovely as well, and are so because they are achieved in a subtle way (it may be 1983 in the film but there were no caricatures or ham-fisted exaggerated cultural references), exactly the way the story unfolds, and exactly the way Hammer and Chalamet play their roles. This understated quality reinforces the verisimilitude of every aspect of the film and story.
When Elio and Oliver do finally connect and act on their passions, we are presented with some very frank ideas of gay sexuality without nudity or actual sex scenes which is rather refreshing. After all, the core of the film is emotional and not physical. But I appreciated the frankness nonetheless as such things are certainly a part of the gay community (Hammer confessed that he needed director Luca Guadagnino to explain them to him!). The beauty of Elio and Oliver together is breathtaking in its natural simplicity, and both actors are utterly committed to that portrayal and to each other. There has also been some external controversy about the age difference between the characters in the story: while Elio is seventeen, Oliver is twenty-three (although to be fair, Hammer does look older). On the press junket for the film, Hammer defended the age gap by saying that the age of consent in Italy now as well as in 1983 is fourteen. But that is a technical answer to a question that deserves to be explored in depth. For this story in particular, Elio is the one who makes the first move. He is not--not--a victim of a predator or pedophile. It is difficult for some heterosexual people to wrap their heads around that. Which leads me to a deeper level: we need to admit that not all seventeen year-olds are created equally. There are some seventeen year-old young men who do not have the capacity to conduct themselves in such a situation. But again, for this story, Elio certainly possesses the capacity--he is not only intelligent but bright (two very different things). What he does not have is experience... experience to keep him from being emotionally hurt. That is an entirely different matter. Experience can be wisdom.
And as I said, since their relationship was a long time coming and their time together so short, the time they had together was even more special. I remember being seventeen and having experiences like this that are so formative, so steeping, so shattering, the way young love can be. I've been living with the film in my head for about 24 hours now and it is haunting me...or perhaps I should say it pains me. Because the languid, romantic spell is broken after the couple must reluctantly part. The two have left the villa on their own to spend a week in a mountainous resort region. They spend their remaining precious time hiking, being physically intimate, and simply being in each other's presence. But their last goodbye is at a train station, in public, and for us gay men who grew up in a certain age, we can relate to having to stifle feelings and yearnings for the comfort and convenience of those around us not to mention our own physical safety (rest in peace all the men--and it is a long list--who have been attacked and murdered--yes, murdered--because they dared to show affection at the wrong time in the wrong place). After this life-and-mind-and-heart-transforming relationship, they are only allowed a brief hug on the platform...a sickening crime visited on these two innocent souls. I support the universal, first-love interpretation of the story until this point in the film. Because here is where I begin to take it really personally and where my true, inner pain begins. And perhaps this is where I identify with Elio until the end of the film. He calls his mother from the train station to come and get him. She drives him back to the villa while he cries in the front seat. At home, his father graces him, in a stunningly tender and devastating monologue, with the knowledge that he knew all along what was going on between the couple. His father also graces him with his love, and more importantly, his blessing. And finally, his father shares the fact that he is envious because there were situations in his own young life where he wanted to, came close to, but never quite got the chance to have such a deep, honest connection with another man.
You see, if the film stopped here, it would be one thing. Our heroes could be substituted with hero and heroine. They loved but were parted, and they can't be together. It's a universal love story. The end. But it is not the end. The next winter, Oliver calls the family (he has clearly kept in touch) and he tells Elio the news that he is getting married. This is heartbreaking to Elio, and to us...and to me. This news, while upsetting to our parallel heroine, is gutting to Elio since it negates what happened between them. Being gay brings a special viewpoint, that of an outsider. If Oliver had found another man to be with (not marry since no one could have predicted such seismic shifts in culture would happen in our lifetime), it would not have been as bad. But Oliver negated not only Elio but what they had, what they shared, what they did, and who Elio is. I know the director has expressed a different opinion, but my interpretation of the final events of the film (where Elio confronts a girl he had sex with and they decide to only be friends) suggests to me that Elio is and will identify as a gay man. He is young enough and smart enough and confident enough to grow up and be himself, and the ensuing decades will be easier on him than they were on Oliver. But he must get over this initial collapse of first love...and the attempted assassination of his entire being. After he hears this news and hangs up, he goes to sit by the fire in the villa's dining room and cries the tears only a seventeen year-old can cry about losing a love. I do not mean that in a trivial way. I mean that at this point, he is untouched by experience, any possible cynicism, or any world-weariness that comes from facing heartbreak and disappointment again and again in one's adult life. His tears are primal. And we watch him cry, in an agonizing, relentless, near-five minute close-up (cosmic kudos to Timothée Chalamet for such raw, visceral talent) while the credits roll and the glorious, precious, sublimely sorrowful song "Visions of Gideon" by Sufjan Stevens plays ("I have loved you for the last time/I have kissed you for the last time").
It is that final layer that pains me. That someone you loved can not only reject you, but who and what you are, an entire state of being. That is the pain that we as gay men have experienced time and time again, not for any innate reasons, but, as I said, for the comfort and convenience of others. If it were a welcoming, understanding world, and Oliver were allowed to continue a relationship with Elio (22 and 29 doesn't seem like such an age gap) without fear of rejection from family and friends and the society he lives in, what would the end of this film have looked like?