The following piece contains spoilers for Call Me by Your Name.
Partway through Call Me by Your Name, which hit theaters Friday and may be the best queer film of the year, 17-year-old Elio nestles on the couch with his parents as his mother reads from a 16th century fairy tale. It’s about a knight torn over whether to confess his love to a princess: “Is it better to speak or to die?” he asks. The question hovers over Elio; though he hardly knows it himself, his parents can already see that he’s falling in love for the first time. We don’t yet know whether Elio (Timothée Chalamet) or Oliver (Armie Hammer), the 24-year-old American student visiting the family’s villa in Italy for the summer, is the knight or the princess. But it’s clear that what’s unfolding between them is a storybook romance.
And holy shit, is it beautiful. I don’t just mean the sun-dipped Italian countryside where Elio and Oliver spend languid summer days around the pool, or Luca Guadagnino’s delicate direction, or the stunning performances at the center of the film, or even the simple joy of watching Armie Hammer flail about to The Psychedelic Furs at the town disco. The film broadens the novel it’s based on into a paragon of homoerotic discovery, as ideal as the ancient statues Elio’s father, an American professor of Greco-Roman arts, pulls up from the sea to study.
Unlike so many other movies about romance between men, from Brokeback Mountain to Stranger by the Lake, the love that develops between Elio and Oliver isn’t marked by derision, violence, or the consequences of breaking with hetero norms. In fact, despite their difference in age and the early-80s setting, their relationship is hardly transgressive at all—least of all to Elio’s parents. Elio’s sexual coming of age, from his first kiss to his first time, is one that anyone could wish for, a near-Platonic ideal. All of which heralds Call Me by Your Name as a watershed moment in queer cinema.
And for all the same reasons, it’s almost painful to watch, too.
Straight people, of course, are used to seeing idealized portrayals of their past or potential sex lives on screen. But I've never seen anything like this. Personally, I didn’t know what to do with myself when I saw it. This was the first idealized gay coming-of-age narrative I’d ever seen, and it made my heart swell. But it also made me reflect on how far from ideal my own list of firsts had been. The pleasures of finally getting a Call Me by Your Name were mixed with the ache of looking back at my own experience through a new lens.
Nearly every aspect of queer experience depicted in the film feels calibrated to smooth over the challenges gay men have faced. On the coast of Northern Italy in 1983, before the AIDS epidemic had reached a fever pitch that would come to associate gay sex with death and disease, Elio and Oliver are immersed in a world of music and art. Their courtship is one of ideas, a dance between intellects. The vigor of their young bodies is on display too, an eroticism echoed in the ancient art studied by Elio’s father. Just as Ancient Greece held up love between men as the highest ideal, to Elio’s intellectual parents, the love between their son and Oliver is more than natural; it’s beautiful and something to be cherished.
As heat between them builds, Elio isn’t content to torment himself over his desire, as so many queer adolescents might. He is the knight who eventually speaks his love to the princess: He gets horny and frustrated. He fools around and loses his virginity to a girl. He jerks off. He sticks his face in an empty pair of Oliver’s old swim trunks. And when he’s driven to write furiously in his journal, he isn't grappling with some existential sense of shame—it’s just the normal scribbles of a teenage crush, which is remarkable to see in itself when that boy’s crush is on a man.
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Even the movie’s resistance to showing Elio’s first time on screen, a fact some critics have lamented, or making clear which position he takes—though it’s assumed that he bottoms, as in the novel—fits with its overall glossing of gay experience into a high sheen. Yes, gay sex involves negotiation, doing something that might seem unnatural the first time around, and no small amount of pain. We already know this. What we do see as they begin to play around is Oliver ask Elio, “Are you okay?” and “Does this make you happy?” And we later see Oliver assure him, when Elio’s raging libido drives him to fuck a peach, that he’s not some sick freak for feeling overwhelmed by lust.
The pinnacle of this fairy tale, aside from a scene that finds its two main characters drunk and literally dancing in the streets, is the self-assurance inherent to doing as its title asks. “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine,” Oliver whispers to Elio as they lay tangled up in bed, their first night together creeping into the early morning hours. Nothing could be further from feeling ashamed of your desire than calling out your name in the face of your lover's**.** Can you imagine feeling that way at 17? After your first time? I still can’t, and I’ve lived twice as long.
Maybe all the rest of this extraordinary film—a summer spent in Italy, a knight asleep in your own bed, freedom achieved from regressive social mores—can be chalked up to the stuff of fantasy. But Elio’s relationship with his parents, and their intuition, understanding, and complete emotional support as awakens to his sexuality, hits much closer to home. Portrayals of young queer people and their parents, from Ma Vie En Rose to Pariah, are generally fraught with pain and rejection, or at minimum deal with the struggles of acceptance. For so many, the truth is far worse: an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ kids rejected by their families.
“Remember that I’m here,” Elio’s father tells him after Oliver heads home as summer ends. Many parents would wish their love away, the professor admits, and his own father would have carted him off. Then he offers his son the kind of validation and wisdom that so many queer people spend their whole lives searching for, having never found it at home: That the bond he shared with Oliver was rare and special and something to savor. That love, however fleeting, should never be taken for granted. That hearts only have so much fire in them—so tend to the blaze, even when it breaks.
I’m not sure how I might have felt, or what fantasies about my romantic life I might have been inspired to dream up, had Call Me by Your Name come out when I was Elio’s age. Maybe it was better not having a movie like this to compare to my keg-party first kiss (did that even count?), or to the first night I spent crammed into a single bed with a boy in my dorm, who seemed genuinely pissed (at me?) when he didn’t last very long. Without a film like this to watch growing up, I only felt estranged from my straight peers and the love stories they devoured (go ahead and let go of that board, Jack). There was nothing to show me what I was missing.
If straight fairy tales throw obstacles between straight lovers—witches, curses, sinking ships—then maybe a queer one takes away the real ones so many of us face every day, so we can see, perhaps for the first time, a world without so much standing in the way of love.
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